Speech at the Institute of Education for their Open Lecture Series

It is a great pleasure to be able to speak to you tonight at the Institute for Education on Labour’s education policy – and I want to thank the IOE for inviting me along to do so.

I believe I am the only member of the education front benches of the major parties in either of the Houses of Parliament who is a former teacher.

Whilst that should not be a requirement for those who make education policy, I strongly believe that education policy without the input of people who have been classroom practitioners is likely to be less successful.

I recall when I was a teacher often rolling my eyes at the latest missive from on high from the Department for Education which showed little or no understanding of the practical implications for schools and teachers of what was being imposed.

All parties have been guilty of this from time to time, but the current government have turned top down imposition of policy with little or no basis in practise or evidence into an art form.

So first of all I want to signal tonight that Labour is determined to change that if we are elected in May.

And that is not just a pledge from me as the prospective schools minister in the next Labour government, it is fully supported by the Shadow Secretary of State Tristram Hunt, by our leader, Ed Miliband, and is our party policy.

My talk tonight will focus on 14-19 as that is the brief from the IOE, although my responsibilities as Shadow Schools Minister range across all school-age children.

But there is, I believe, a growing consensus in education shared by everyone from the CBI to the TUC, to the Royal Society (but not unfortunately by Ministers at the Department for Education).

That consensus is that we should be looking to see 14-19 as a distinct phase in education, with a need to develop over time, appropriate courses, structures and examinations to meet the needs of this country in the 21st century.

So tonight I will talk about how we see this as something to be developed in partnership with headteachers, college principals, teachers, lecturers, learned institutions, universities, business, parents, young people and others.

In other words we want to end the idea that the man or woman in Sanctuary Buildings always knows best – and encourage an educational culture where all the interested parties work together to nurture that long-term consensus about the way forward for our education system.

So we will base our actions on evidence and consensus, not on ideology and division.


I want to start however with a word about finance.  I know that for many of you here tonight this is a key issue, as indeed it always is.

Recently David Cameron made it clear that under a Conservative government spending on the schools budget would be cut by 7% in real terms and tried to claim that this constituted protecting that budget.

I’m not able this evening to tell you exactly what Labour’s offer will be on the School’s budget – not because I don’t want to – but because that sort of major announcement is reserved for party leaders, but I can tell you that that announcement is imminent – and I can say with confidence that we will do better than the Conservative party’s promise of major cuts.

Of course the Schools budget only refers to funding up to the age of 16.

The public are largely unaware that the decision in the current parliament to partly protect the education budget, not only did not apply to capital spending and children's services – but also has not applied to the 16–19 budget – making it the largest unprotected budget in the Department for Education.

That, combined with the ideological pursuit of every school becoming an academy regardless of local views and no proper place planning, has meant that millions of pounds have been sunk into projects where sufficient student places already exist, rather than being available for other institutions.

£62 million has been spent on nine 16–19 free schools since 2011– An average of nearly £7 million per institution.

Even if they were full, they would educate only 1557 students – in other words fewer students than attend the average Sixth Form College.

Education spending should be about fairness to students, not boosting a brand – that's why we will put a stop to the nonsense of using scarce resources to open Free schools in areas where there are good places already available.

That's why, as envisaged in the David Blunkett report, we will create Directors of School Standards, appointed by local authorities, but independent of them, to help raise standards, plan places properly, and to ensure fair and open competition for new school places where they are needed.

I believe this approach can bring the right balance, allowing for autonomy and innovation, but ensuring that fairness is built into systems at a local level, and stopping the nonsense of ministers trying to run everything from the centre.

I know that the financial constraints of the last few years have placed real pressures on post 16 provision. As I said I am unable to make any budget commitments tonight.

They will be set out by others more senior than me in the very near future, but I can say that it is clear to me that relentlessly and repeatedly cutting 16–19 funding is not a sustainable policy.

We will look hard and seriously at the impact that all I have mentioned above is having post 16.

I know that already some schools and colleges have had to drop courses, including STEM and modern foreign languages, and even more have had to cut back on enrichment activities particularly in sport.

And it doesn't help when the Education Secretary traduces the arts either, at a time when music and drama are under pressure.

There is already clear evidence that the cuts have led to a narrower curriculum offer and fewer opportunities for extracurricular activity. So we have do better than the current government, and watch this space for more detail on that very shortly.


I now want to say a bit more about what is taught and examined -

Labour wants a broader and more balanced curriculum. That is why we have been developing our Tech Bacc proposals for a better 14–19 technical and vocational pathway to provide a structured route for young people pursing vocational and technical qualifications.

Much has happened since we set up our Skill taskforce under Chris Husbands to look at this.

The Government has announced its own version of a Tech Bacc and ‘Tech Levels’; there has been extensive work on the structure of general qualifications in response to government reform; other groups have explored the idea of a ‘Mod Bacc’; the Headteachers’ Roundtable done work on refashioning the framework of existing qualifications.

City and Guilds have developed yet another model, which extends thinking about how qualifications change might work.  The CBI and Royal Society have published their own ideas.

Of course the term ‘baccalaureate’ is not new to this country - the IB has been on offer in State and private institutions for decades, and in Wales the Welsh Bacc has been in place for several years -

But the term baccalaureate has become almost ubiquitous recently, and therefore in danger of losing its meaning.

Traditionally in our system school qualifications are taken separately - students complete a GCSE in a subject, or a BTEC Diploma in something, or an A-level in something else. The qualifications have been treated and reported separately.  

A ‘baccalaureate’ combines different elements of learning into a single qualification, which is reported as a single outcome yet profiles the different elements.

The so called English Bacc was not really a Baccalaureate at all but a semi-official accountability nudge measure.

As Chris pointed out in his report for us, a proper baccalaureate has several advantages: it provides more easily signposted routes through learning and offers a more coherent and balanced route for learners -

Choice is exercised within the learning programme rather than between different learning programmes.

A strong Technical Baccalaureate can therefore provide overall structure for disjointed vocational provision, to ensure breadth and quality in learning programmes and to provide greater visibility and status for the range of learning undertaken.

But I believe that this is just a first step.

The Technical Baccalaureate should become part of a wider, coherent and flexible framework, which provides a structure for recognising and assuring the learning of all young people.

The risk is that unless it is connected, it will not carry the esteem it should and become disconnected from the wider 14-19 system.

As part of a flexible but coherent framework however, the Tech Bacc would provide a powerful way of recognising technical and applied learning.

That is why over the longer term we should be moving towards a national baccalaureate.

The aim would be for young people not only to develop capacities to enter higher education, but also to be more ready for working life and to make a wider contribution to society as a whole.

So Labour will facilitate over time, the creation of a single National Baccalaureate Framework that requires that young people not only attain general and vocational qualifications, but also continue to study Maths and English; focus on their personal development including character and attitude, volunteering, community service and work experience, and a personal research project in which they can engage with something in real depth.

We believe that these more rounded capabilities are ones that both universities and employers are looking for.

The National Baccalaureate should be a formal award at level 3 for young people to take on to universities, an apprenticeship or into employment. It will not simply be a performance or league table measure

A key question is how we might go about this major task? I said ‘facilitate’ at the outset because it is a long-term project that would take more than a single term of government.

A Labour Government could not successfully undertake this by itself.  It needs to work in partnership with a range of stakeholders including teachers, schools and colleges, employers and those in higher education.

I believe that is possible because of the broad developing consensus I mentioned earlier.

In fact in this area of 14-19 education, practice is already ahead of current Government policy.

I’ve mentioned that there are baccalaureate-type ideas, projects and practices already existing on the ground that can help to shape a future National Baccalaureate Framework.

Labour will want to work with these developments and to help them flourish, so that the new framework is essentially created from below and not imposed from above.

People often talk about root and branch reform – but here the seeds of reform are already sown – our role in government should be to help to nurture them to grow and thrive.

I also recognise that a Labour Government would not only work with practitioners and education stakeholders, but will need to build support across political parties to make a national baccalaureate framework strong and enduring, and resilient to changes in political fortunes.

That will not be easy but I believe there is a general weariness with conflict in education and a growing appetite for consensus.

Students, teachers, parents and other stakeholders would be the major beneficiaries of a new stability and gradualism in curriculum and qualifications reform building on the best we have got.

So the job of government should extend beyond setting the direction of travel for the future and extend to building a new consensus.

Rather than pulling the clunky Whitehall lever of top down imposed change, we think that real leadership would be to gradually revisit those major policy levers (e.g. funding, inspection, performance measures) in order to create a healthier landscape in which schools, colleges, workplace providers and higher education can innovate together.

But there is a more immediate issue on qualifications that we need to act quickly to fix. I want to say something now about AS level, which will force me to drop momentarily my consensual tone.

The decision to decouple AS-level from A level is one of the most pig-headed and stupid decisions taken by the former Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove.

This was not a decision taken by Ofqual as the exam regulator, it was a "policy direction" direct from the Secretary of State himself.

There are a number of reasons why this was the wrong decision. First of all we all know that we specialise very early in this country.

AS-level coupled with A level allows students to delay specialisation a little bit longer, and reduces the dropout rate.

It's an important steppingstone for students and also, because it counts, it helps them to focus more quickly on the big step up at A-level.

I agree that in the past some external assessments were done too early, and that AS-level doesn't have to necessarily account for 50% of the final grade. But making the final examination the only thing that matters will deny many students a chance to show what they can really achieve.
There is of course another reason why this decision is wrong.

There is clear and compelling evidence that AS-level provides a very good predictor for performance in higher education.

The extensive work done on this by Cambridge University indicates that it is a better predictor than GCSE in every subject except maths. It is also better than teacher predictions.

This particularly helps with applications to universities by students from less well-off backgrounds. It gives them an extra year to mature. It shows their achievement at the point of application.

Interestingly rather than accepting the research from his old university, the Liberal Democrat schools minister David Laws chose to back up Michael Gove by cobbling together some statistics at the DFE, which he claimed showed GCSE results were as good predictors as AS level results.

His work however has been checked thoroughly and found wanting. The University of Bristol looked in detail at the DFE study of 88,000 students who graduated in 2011 and it identified,

"Missing data, sample bias and poor research design."

Professor Ron Johnson with admirable academic understatement said the DFE's research was "unimpressive" – Describing some of the findings as "nonsensical".

In fact Bristol University concluded that nearly one in five students who fared better at AS-level than GCSE might not have received an offer of a university place based on their GCSE results alone. Cambridge University also told Ofqual that AS-level was,

"Fundamental to fair admissions."

I want to make it absolutely clear tonight to everyone here, but also to heads, teachers, parents and pupils across the country that if elected we will reverse the decision to decouple AS-level from A level.

Of course this will mean that the introduction of new A-levels will have to be put on hold whilst AS-level is refitted to the new courses.

In other words current A levels will continue from next September.

Make no mistake about it we will not allow ideology to stifle opportunity by permitting this foolish change to proceed. I wrote to the head of Ofqual at the time of the original announcement to make that clear, and I want to make sure that no one is in any doubt about our position on this issue.

On GCSE we thought long and hard.

I remain concerned that the changes coming in will cause confusion (particularly with two grading systems running alongside each other for the new few years), and unnecessarily break up the tripartite nature of the qualification in England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

Nevertheless there was a strong case for reform, particularly in English and Maths.  And we also received strong representations that a great deal of work and preparation had gone into the new GCSEs and that further disruption to this process would be unwelcome to many.

Of course the question arises about the long-term future of GCSE in the context of the development of a national baccalaureate.

I believe that is a matter for the kind of discussion with all the interested parties that I outlined earlier in these remarks.

GCSE will be with us for some time to come, but over the long term if 14-19 is to be seen as a distinct period in education, particularly with the raising of the participation age, then inevitably discussions will develop about the role of GCSE in the longer term.

And on careers, information, advice and guidance, the current government has badly failed our young people.

Last October the Sutton Trust published a report into careers guidance which said that the government’s changes had -

“Resulted in a decline in quality and quantity of the careers guidance available to young people.” It also found -

“Where schools provide good quality careers guidance there are improvements in GCSE results, attendance and access to leading universities.”

The recent announcement of a careers company is too little too late.

There is a plethora of information for young people, and probably plenty of advice from a variety of sources, but what young people need is good guidance which is tailored to their individual needs.

Labour believes that we need high quality independent careers guidance in schools and colleges, to help all young people make the right choices.

Good careers guidance helps to ensure students are given quality information and guidance on academic and vocational qualifications, and apprenticeships, so they can pursue the paths that are right for them.

In a wider sense we should be thinking about the school and college of the future and the role of technology in this digital age.

When I started teaching in 1985 – if you wanted to produce a worksheet quickly for pupils it required the use of carbon paper and the Banda machine.

It made a reasonable facsimile of your handwritten lesson – but if produced in close time proximity to the commencement of the lesson had the danger of potentially causing a collective fainting fit as the pupils sniffed the fluid solvent on the paper.

Eventually the photocopiers came into the staffroom and even computers in the classroom– but even by the time I left teaching at the end of 1994 technology played a peripheral part only in most schools.

The digital revolution since then has changed the world

We carry in our pockets computers infinitely more powerful than those on board the spacecraft that put a man on the moon – soon we’ll be wearing the technology despite the demise of google glass– even in Africa, like Kenya, a 3rd of payments are made by mobile phone – a digital currency in a so-called 3rd world society.

We live in a connected, transformed world in the home and the workplace and out and about.

But often not in the classroom and not in pedagogy– and that lack of transformation in the classroom has been reinforced in my view by the current government which for much of its time has seemed to have a vision of the classroom – from another era.

In other words for much of the time, the DfE has given the impression that it wants an analogue curriculum for our digital age – there have been some good initiatives – I welcome for example the introduction of the teaching of computing.

But in this connected digital age not enough has been done to change our schools and colleges to reflect the present – let alone to prepare for the future.

When I was in University I remember being told that lectures went out of date with the invention of the printing press – and recent research suggests that students’ brains are more asleep during lectures than when they are in bed.

I will refrain from speculating any further on that point, but we need to make sure that the pedagogy in our schools is based on the evidence of how students will learn what they need to learn, to flourish and thrive in our connected digital world

In others words our aim should be to help students gain what they need to be creative, connected, capable, collaborative citizens who can solve problems, succeed and contribute to the common good

In order to do that they will need more than an ability to reproduce knowledge, at an exam at the end of a 2 year course.

Acquiring knowledge is of course important but a system which values only the ability to recall knowledge produces the kind of outcome seen in recent surveys in the USA.

Where although half of school students said they’d like to start their own business only 7% said school gave them any experience that would help.

If we want enterprising problem solving citizens – and I think we do – we need a new approach – and one which recognises the power of digital technology to unleash the learning potential of humans.

In the industrial era it made sense to have an industrial model of education.

Modern manufacturing is hugely important part of our economy, one where the workforce needs to consist of more than just assembly line workers – where high levels of skills are required.

But much of the new economy is post-industrial.

A few miles from where I live in South Wales is an old components factory – which for the last few years has been used to make TV programmes like Dr Who and Sherlock for the BBC – I’ve had the good fortune to visit there, stroll around the Tardis and watch Sherlock being filmed.

That factory has gone from manufacturing widgets to manufacturing fantasies – which are then exported right around the globe, earning revenue and projecting an image of Britain as an open creative country.

But in addition to the actors and writers are highly skilled well paid creative and technical jobs – as well as the ancillary transport, catering and logistical jobs associated with the creative industries – where team work, problem solving and the use of tech are vital.

Many schools and colleges recognise they have to develop skills for the digital age.

They recognise that students need to be engaged in an enjoyable learning process which will help them to become more independent learners and more employable.

But they are often understandably concerned that innovation brings risk – and that simplistic accountability measures can discourage innovation.

Labour wants to see curriculum innovation and pedagogy to prepare students for the world as it is – not as it was.

That’s why we will look to evolve accountability measures and qualifications that take into account the learning and achievement that goes on in the classroom beyond just the final examination.

And we will aim to rebuild trust in teacher assessment Supporting initiatives like John Dunford’s Institute of Chartered Assessors.

And in all this technology should become the ubiquitous ally of learning.

We should envisage a system where all learners have their own device-which they can use in school and at home- School and college I.T. systems should evolve to support this approach - and resources like the pupil premium should be deployed to support those who need help.

If we can do it in parliament where even in the old Palace of Westminster MPs are wirelessly connected using their own devices in the Chamber, then we can do it in the classroom.

There are some very exciting developments happening that Government should be supporting and which can greatly enhance learning in the 14-19 stage. For example FutureLearn was formed in December 2012 by the Open University and launched its first courses in October 2013. A year later, FutureLearn had over 600,000 learners studying on 1.2 million courses from 190 countries.

I was looking this week at the MOOC developed by Leeds University to support AS Level politics with an online course based around this year’s general election.

I also met someone this week who is developing online resources for 16-19 year olds including psychometric testing which young people can use to improve their resilience, grit and attitude – in other words all the qualities we know are valued by employers in the 21st century world of work.

In many schools new learning partnerships are developing between students and teachers—using projects and tasks to stimulate the learning process—with digital tools and resources to enable the process of learning, and engaging parents too.

What’s more, for teachers themselves technology can enable them quickly and more widely to assess if a concept has been understood—and to act remedially to make sure it is.

Digital technology enables instant feedback and analysis—and adaptive testing -where questions change in challenge according to previous answers - can be used to fine tune assessment.

But despite this connected digital world we live in—where the commonplace is dominated by technology of every kind—where digital devices, smart phones, tablets and laptops abound – where pupils have grown up with this technology - our principle method of assessment is to sit students down for 3 hours with a pen—and ask them to write out by hand all they know.

Don’t misunderstand me, developing writing by hand is important-particularly in early years—but the increasing rigidity of our exam system could make succeeding in a digital world less—not more likely.

Can I say a word on structures.

The current government’s policy has been obsessed with school structures.

Labour’s view is that what matters is the quality of the leadership and teaching in our taxpayer funded schools and colleges, not the name on the sign outside the school gates.

We now have academies, Free Schools, University technical colleges, Sixth Form colleges, Studio Schools, FE colleges, all operating in the 14-19 education area.

Our mission will be to ensure the highest quality of education is available whatever the type of institution and to promote fairness in terms of funding and admissions across all schools and colleges.

And we will help the best performing FE colleges to become institutes of technical excellence, where they are high-skill, high-aspiration centres, which are training young people for the jobs of tomorrow.

A final point.

Too often there is a negative narrative around our education system.

Yes it has its faults – some of which I’ve outlined – but overwhelmingly we have a high performing system with high quality professionals delivering world class education for our young people.

Labour will challenge failure as any government should we will insist on high standards as everyone of us involved in education should, but we will also seek to build partnership, consensus and trust, because without those components no education system will ultimately reach its potential.