Labour’s new approach to education: ‘Evidence, evidence, evidence’. What can the Lib Dems learn from this?

by Stephen Tall on February 23, 2012

I’m going to do something now I haven’t had cause to do in a good few months: praise a Labour policy. Here’s why.

On Tuesday night, I went along to listen to Stephen Twigg, Labour’s shadow education secretary, deliver a speech to a ProgressOnline debate on raising standards in education. (The event was in parliament’s Grimond Room, so I felt reasonably at home.) The theme was ‘Evidence, not dogma’, and Mr Twigg stayed true to the spirit of it, announcing a heavily-trailed proposal that Labour will establish an Office for Educational Improvement. You can read his speech here, and here’s an excerpt:

… instead of looking back to a halcyon age that never existed, we need to understand how we reform the whole of our system, rather than focussing on limited clusters of interventions. Too often education reform has been based on the fashions of the day rather than on solid data.

To address this challenge, I am announcing today that a Labour Government would create an ‘Office for Educational Improvement’, independent of ministers, along the lines of the Office for Budgetary Responsibility. The Office would focus on four major areas: promoting high standards; spreading best practice; acting as a clearing house for research; and aiming to improve England’s position compared to other countries.

The Office would act as the authority on evidence in education policy, including on the relationship between education and social mobility. … I do not see this as being just another quango. Rather I want to involve people who have experience of the front line. A head teacher who has experience of getting poorer kids into university, for example.

Labour will take political dogma out of the education system and put evidence at its heart. So, ask me my three priorities in education, and I would say “evidence, evidence, evidence.”

Three things that strike me about Stephen Twigg’s speech

First, it’s smart politics, triangulating neatly the stereotypical polar divides in the educational debate. As Stephen Twigg put it: “There are lots of Labour voters who believe in rigorous examinations and proper discipline, just as there are lots of Conservative voters who believe in vocational subjects and helping the poorest pupils.” (Anyone else hear echoes of Barack Obama’s famous 2004 speech to the Democratic convention, ‘there aren’t blue states or red states, only the United States’?)

Secondly, it’s the correct approach. Ever since James Callaghan’s famous Ruskin speech in 1976 — when the ‘secret garden’ of education policy was first trampled by politicians — there has been more and more Whitehall intervention. Most of it has been based on personal hunch and political whim.

Take the current belief in the highest echelons that school uniforms boost children’s attainment: there is no robust evidence to suggest that’s the case. But it’s not just Whitehall that’s fallible. There are plenty of teachers and schools which believe hiring teaching assistants is the best use of resources — yet the evidence to date, both in the UK and abroad, shows little benefit to the children, and that in fact poorer children can be negatively affected. Yet the UK spends more than £2 billion a year on teaching assistants.

Thirdly, and a little off-topic, I wondered what might have become of Stephen Twigg’s political career if he hadn’t lost his Enfield Southgate seat in 2005? (He returned in 2010 as MP for the safer berth of Liverpool West Derby). At that time he’d just succeeded David Miliband as schools minister, and would, I imagine, have been promoted to the cabinet in the following parliament, becoming a key player in the Labour leadership stakes.

The challenge for the Lib Dems

Stephen Twigg’s intervention poses an interesting challenge to the Lib Dems.

All three parties have, over the past decade, begun to converge on similar educational policy terrain when it comes to school structures, most notably giving greater rights to parents, and freeing schools from LEA control. As a result, the political debate has tended to contrive areas of micro-disagreement, with politicians muscling in on the areas they’re least qualified to pronounce on, such as the shape of the curriculum and pedagogy (eg, phonics).

Since Nick Clegg’s election as Lib Dem leader, the party’s most distinctive education policy has become the ‘pupil premium’, championed by Lib Dem schools minister Sarah Teather. This is new money targeted at the poorest pupils, recognising that this disadvantaged group will encounter the biggest educational challenges.

If the policy had been developed by Labour, you could guarantee it would’ve been tightly ring-fenced to ensure there was a measurable output statistic that could burnish Gordon Brown’s conference speech. The Lib Dems, courageously, have said this money is not to be centrally directed: schools are free to spend it on those measures they think will boost the attainment levels of the poorest children in their specific context.

Which is great liberal theory — but, as we’ve seen above, existing resources are not always well-spent so there is a good chance these additional resources might also miss the mark. How will the government — how will we as taxpayers — know if the ‘pupil premium’ has actually improved the educational life chances of the most disadvantaged; or will it simply have been absorbed into the general school budget to mop up pay-inflation increases, or repair the faulty boiler? There is, therefore, a need for accountability, for us as a party to be able to demonstrate to the public that the £1.25 billion of ‘pupil premium’ money we’re spending next year has made a difference.

However, there is another level of accountability needed also: democratic accountability. Freeing schools from local authority control has diminished the role of LEAs as a ‘mediating layer’ able to promote and share best teaching practice within and between local schools. It is this vacuum which Stephen Twigg’s Office for Educational Improvement would, in part, fill. But the diminution of LEAs has also left no way for local people — past and future parents, local employers — to have a say in what they want from the schools serving their communities, paid for by their taxes. Perhaps we as a party believe the local community no longer has a role to play. If we believe it does, though, we need to start thinking through what that might look like.

Conclusion

At Tuesday night’s event, I spoke from the floor to welcome Stephen Twigg’s contribution to the education debate. ‘Evidence-based policy’ is a concept rational-secularists within the Lib Dems are quite comfortable with — at least when it concerns policies relating to science, health and drugs.

It is more of a challenge within the context of education, where everyone (intentionally or not) brings their personal prejudices based on their own school experiences, whether as a pupil, teacher or parent/carer, of what works. It is even more of a challenge for politicians, always on the look out for the ‘magic bullet’, with an affordable price-tag, guaranteed to be ready in time for the next manifesto. But that’s simply not how social policy works.

Of course education will continue to be a subject of hot political contention. There are big issues — for example, relating to the level of funding, the relative importance of the primary/secondary/tertiary sectors, the skills needed for a thriving economy — where politicians can and should make clear their goals. But there are also issues where we need to respect the evidence, however inconvenient, and support the teaching profession to do a good job without constant interference from politicians.

(Full disclosue: I work for a major grant-making charity, the Education Endowment Foundation, which funds evidence-based initiatives in schools aiming to raise attainment standards among the poorest children.)

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.