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If Labour wants to rebuild the Red Wall, it should rethink its education policy

Ed Dorrell
·4-min read
<p>The biggest priorities for parents when picking a school are academic performance and classroom behaviour</p> (Getty Images)

The biggest priorities for parents when picking a school are academic performance and classroom behaviour

(Getty Images)

It seems that Labour has decided that if it wants to win the next election, and not just target a hung parliament, it must focus hard on winning back the Red Wall that turned blue.

Labour’s new leadership must now remember how to talk to voters from Darlington to the Don Valley, and understand why they deserted them in such numbers almost exactly a year ago.

For a party that under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was accused of thinking only about the interests of so-called liberal metropolitan voters, there is no shortage of policies to reconsider. The great dividing line – Brexit – may (hopefully) soon be resolved, but there are other (often debated) battlefields, most notably civic renewal and economic regeneration.

But one policy area hasn’t been much discussed in the context of Keir Starmer’s ambitions to regenerate Labour as the party of the northern working class is education.

I believe – and the public opinion research carried out by the organisation I work for, Public First, supports this argument – that there is a large gap between what the voters of Blyth Valley and the Black Country want from their children’s schools and what many in the London-dominated Labour Party envision as a modern education system.

For a number of years, a large proportion of those at the top of the Labour Party have been in hoc to a kind of progressivism in education that regards the drive to improve academic results and the encouragement of a traditional approach to behaviour as somehow out of date. They also talk in terms of the curriculum being old fashioned and the qualifications system no longer fit for purpose.

Most radically, at the last election Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto called for the abolition of Ofsted and its replacement with a new kind of accountability regime.

The interesting thing for those who want Labour to reinvent itself as a realistic party of government is that none of this washes with the lower middle class voters of England’s provinces (and rightly so).

Time and again in focus groups and polling, we have found that the biggest priorities for parents when picking a school – especially in the demographics that Labour needs to win back – are whether their child will do well academically and whether classroom behaviour is under control. Time and again we have found that Ofsted is incredibly popular, especially with parents who might not have the upper middle class confidence required to march into the head’s office and demand that something be done.

It is worth remembering that in the 2017 election Labour won the education debate by doubling down on school funding and – with a huge amount of help from the teacher unions – turned it into such a big issue that by many calculations it cost Theresa May her majority. By 2019, the Tories had cottoned on and promised schools a significant uptick in funding, thus neutralising the issue. In reply Corbyn promised to close down the one organisation that many parents felt gave them agency when thinking about their children’s schooling.

Of course there were other bigger issues – Brexit, primarily – that saw Boris Johnson win his landslide, but planning to abolish Ofsted certainly won’t have helped.

It would seem that today's Labour is making a real effort to learn lessons from this electoral debacle, which is, to coin a phrase, splendid news. In-so-doing, it is to be hoped that the new leadership, including the impressive shadow education secretary Kate Green and the equally impressive shadow schools minister Wes Streeting, make a break with the recent past and reject some of the more farcical flights of progressivist educational whimsy that for too long have held sway on their side of the green benches.

The voters that Starmer, Green and Streeting need to win back are unlikely to be wooed by promises of a radical reimagining of England’s education system for the 21st century - but they will be all ears if a party talks to them about better funding for schools, a healthier supply of well trained and well paid teachers, and the promise of less dilapidated buildings for their kids to learn in. And, while they’re at it, better behaviour too. What could be more traditionally Labour than that?

Ed Dorrell is director of Public First

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