Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is a member of Labour’s Shadow Education team in the Lords
Later today I will propose a motion in the Lords which celebrates the contribution of schools to the wellbeing, personal and social needs of children and young people.
The debate will highlight the differences between Labour’s belief that schools have wider responsibilities to produce well rounded, confident and thoughtful young people, compared to the Coalition government’s obsession with league tables, testing and exam results.
Our arguments go to the heart of the education debate, raising issues about the purpose of education and challenging Michael Gove to a national debate to enable parents, teachers and young people themselves to raise their concerns about the government’s underlying educational philosophy.
Labour has a proud record on education and we don’t need lessons on the importance of educational attainment. There was a sustained period of improvement in education outcomes in the UK from 1997 to 2010. But at the same time, we recognised that pupils’ low achievement was only partly determined by their education. Factors such as levels of poverty, parental support, a stable home life and a lack of community aspiration also played a part.
That’s why we developed the Every Child Matters strategy, which sought to integrate children’s services so that every child would have the right to be happy, safe, achieve economic wellbeing, enjoy life and make a positive contribution. Measures such as Sure Start, improved nutrition and exercise in schools, programmes to tackle bullying and low self esteem and improved sex education all played their part.
Unfortunately, some of the first acts of the Coalition were to unpick our successes. The ring fenced funding for Sure Start was removed; nutritional standards for school food in academies were made voluntary – leading to a slide back to the days of junk food; the successful School Sports Partnership were abandoned – and then only partially reinstated after a national outcry; and PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) has been taken out of the national curriculum and subjected to a prolonged and unresolved review.
So, despite David Cameron’s enthusiasm for promoting children’s wellbeing as a key priority, his Education Ministers are squeezing this out of the school environment. Ofsted is no longer required to measure it and both Mr Gove and Nick Gibb have described it as peripheral, or a distraction, from the core purpose of academic education.
Labour takes a different view. We believe that when schools tackle poor health or wider wellbeing and social issues they are improving the capacity of children to study, learn and excel. The two things should go together. We also believe that there are wider and softer skills which young people should learn in school that don’t have to be measured by exam results. A recent Work Foundation report identified that the growing number of young people not in Employment, Education or Training (NEETs) were hampered in finding work because of their lack of skills in communication or customer service.
These views are echoed by the CBI whose Director has criticised the government’s obsession with GCSE grades, arguing that it encourages short term cramming and frustrates teachers because it stops them delivering an inspirational classroom experience.
We agree with these sentiments, and will continue to make the case for a wider role for education, contributing to the wellbeing of young people and nurturing their creativity, confidence and life skills as well. That’s why Labour’s Childcare Commission – bringing together Shadow Cabinet members from across key Departments - has an important role in defining a new blueprint for integrated children’s services.
This is the right approach and we are confident that it’s what parents, children and employers want from the school experience. Perhaps if Mr Gove took time out from his crusade and engaged in a debate instead, we could, in time, persuade him too.