The Tory government’s total disregard for young people is starkly symbolised by its neglect of the education system: since 2010 we’ve seen record teacher shortages, record levels of exclusions, and repeated inadequate funding settlements even as triple-locked pensions soar. It is time to put the future of the country back at the heart of government by focusing on young people. Only a Labour government would have the policies that will unlock the true human potential of this country’s citizens and enable us all to flourish.
The government’s recent Schools White Paper was described by Lord Watson as “a thin document that we believe represents a missed opportunity in many ways”. This puts it politely. The White Paper completely disregards the crisis in our education system, merely fiddling around the edges of a broken system.
I firmly believe in state education. I’m happy for my children to, like me, be receiving one, because I want my children to grow up and learn with all types of people from our community. That is why I am proposing policies that will not just end the crisis in our schools, but improve outcomes for children from all walks of life and ensure genuine equality of opportunity. Below I set out what I believe a Labour government must do to make our education system work for all.
- Free school meals to be provided to all children year-round, fully funded centrally by taxpayers. No child can learn on a rumbling stomach – and no child can thrive without a diet of healthy, nutritious food.
- An independently governed Children’s Data Trust that ensures local authorities are getting the data they should, and that enables schools data to be better linked with other datasets. Without accurate data we can’t diagnose problems, like how many children are missing their education, or tackle systemic inequalities in our school system, like the much greater likelihood that you will be excluded if you are a boy from the black Caribbean or Gypsy, Roma, Traveller communities.
- End tax exemptions for fee-paying schools. This is money that can be better invested in providing a high quality education for all.
- Improving workers’ rights in schools. Teaching is a caring profession. It should be one of the most rewarding professions that someone could choose to do. Instead we have put our teachers under so much pressure, 44% say they will quit within the next five years according to the National Education Union. Ensuring consistent recognition of trade unions by all schools, with union members able to meet on school premises and to meet regularly with management, as well as ensuring all schools follow the same terms and conditions set by the DfE in negotiation with teaching unions, are all key steps to improving teacher’s job satisfaction and retention.
- No more forced academisation. English schooling is already a mixed provision of community schools, academies and faith-based schools, giving parents an array of choice over the type of education their child might receive. The last time the Tory government proposed 100% academisation, in 2016, the policy was abandoned when they realised the benefits were questionable at best. Academisation is just a distraction from the very real problems the education system faces.
- Abolish the role of Regional Schools Commissioner, and replace it with more local authority powers over malpractice. Local authorities should be given control over the worst-performing Multi-Academy Trusts. Democratically accountable local councillors want good schools on their patch and should be empowered to intervene where standards are failing.
- A less adversarial Ofsted. Ofsted’s job should be to support schools to meet a minimum standard, not act as judge and executioner of those that don’t. Only two categories are needed: a school is either good, or it’s not and it needs support.
Behaviour, special educational needs and disabilities
- End permanent exclusion for good. The level of permanent exclusion and children missing out on an education in some parts of the country is a national disgrace. Excluding a child from school is tantamount to casting them out from society. It is no coincidence that according to the government’s own statistics, 57% of prisoners in England do not meet the literacy level expected of an 11-year old. As a Local Councillor in Southwark, I fought to get all schools in the borough to voluntarily commit to eliminating exclusions on all but the rarest of (safety-related) grounds. There are clear alternatives to exclusion if schools work together and are properly equipped to support all children, no matter how challenging their needs.
- Make schools community support hubs. We have a mental health crisis among our young people. Schools cannot tackle this alone, but they can act as anchors of support for charities and statutory bodies. The West London Zone for Children and Young People is an example of how locally-based partnerships can measurably improve outcomes for children most at risk.
- Fix our broken early years system, it is fundamental to ending child poverty. This should begin with, as the Early Years Commission sets out, better funded early years’ provision as well as investment in children’s centres and family hubs, providing dedicated and locally-relevant parental support services.
- Extend employment rights for new and expectant parents, including time off for antenatal appointments.
- Expand maternity and paternity rights throughout the first years of a child’s life, including an expansion of free childcare.
- More training and support for people working in early years. We know this is a critical developmental stage for children, it’s scandalous that staff are often on poverty wages with very limited training for such important work.
- Equal access to the UK’s best universities for the most academically capable students, regardless of their background. We should be proud of our world-class universities and need a better route to ensuring talented youngsters can access them. Yet still there is a persistent link between family income and access to university, meaning poor children miss out on these chances. This is deeply unfair. All too many of the talented children I went to state school with saw Russell Group universities as out of their reach and too elite; we should require universities to do more to reach out to and be genuinely accessible for all.
- A clear vocational skills pathway underpinned by greater diversity in curriculums before the age of 16. The UK needs a wide array of skills for a thriving economy and fulfilled citizens. Currently, the post-16 system for young people who don’t want to go to university is messy, confusing and lacks prestige. This must be fixed once and for all.
A top quality education should be equally attainable to every child in the country. Parents want to know that their child’s education provider is safe, fun and opens up a world of opportunities for their future. Children and young people’s needs must be met no matter how challenging. The Tory Government is clean out of ideas on how to achieve this. Instead of offering solutions, this Government are resorting to gimmicks like recently announced plans to expand grammar schools, which even Tory MP David Johnston admitted “serve the wealthy, not the poor”. No government should play ideological games with young people’s futures. A Labour government must put equality first and invest properly in our country’s future.
Peter Babudu served as a Councillor in Southwark, London, from 2018-22 and from 2019-22, chaired the Education Scrutiny Commission in Southwark. He produced a review of exclusion practices that led to Southwark’s School Inclusion Charter.