Labour’s policies for improving schools seem conspicuously absent

Labour needs to set out a clear vision for dealing with the problems described by Ofsted.

Labour needs to set out a clear vision for dealing with the problems described by Ofsted

This week has seen two significant educational publications: Ofsted’s annual report of schools in England and statistics on primary school pupils’ attainment in tests at 11.

The Ofsted report and the data show many schools and their children, including those in disadvantaged areas, doing well, but also highlight the gap between the educational outcomes of the most disadvantaged children and their peers.

The Ofsted report also highlights a tail-end of under performing schools. Inequalities in children’s outcomes and weak schools are educational challenges of most rich countries.

While the government and Ofsted have a clear vision to deal with these issues, Labour’s voice seems absent.

While the teaching profession often has strong opinions about Ofsted, its schools report tells a story that most of them will recognise. Primary schools in England are better, but progress to improve secondary schools has stalled.

Ofsted draws attention to the importance of school leadership, which is crucial in determining the quality of education.

The annual report highlights the gap between the educational outcomes of the poorest children and their more advantaged peers. Some 67 per cent of children on free school meals achieve Level 4 in reading, writing and maths in tests taken in the last year of primary education, compared with 79 per cent of all children.

There are big variations between schools and local authorities in the education outcomes of poor children. In London, poor children do better, but there are many prosperous areas where this is not the case, Poole and Cambridgeshire, for example.

It is essential that schools do their best for pupils. But children’s home environment has a far larger impact on their exam results and their life chances.

Research has shown that factors such as parenting styles, mothers’ qualifications, the numbers of books in the house and time spent reading to children all influence educational outcomes more than schools. Household income is also associated with educational outcomes.

Ofsted has recognised the importance of parenting. Its early years report, published this spring, states that a defining factor of a good nursery is the way that it engages with parents to help their children’s learning at home.

More controversially, Ofsted’s chief, Michael Wilshaw, has stated that ‘bad’ parents should be fined, a view with which I disagree strongly. The distinction between bad and good parents is open to interpretation and fining the bad ones among us will do little to make them better.

The government, too, has a clear view about the direction of education policy and parenting support. It has concentrated on making secondary education more rigorous, but has also extended nursery education to cover the most disadvantaged two year olds.

The early intervention programme and the Family Nurse Partnership are programmes that target specific groups of parents with intensive support.

But Labour’s vision for schools and for improving the education of the most disadvantaged children seems conspicuously absent. Instead, the shadow education minister Tristram Hunt has set out gimmicks.

These include an Hippocratic Oath for teachers or better links between private and state schools. I struggle to find convincing Labour policies on improving schools and nurseries, on narrowing the achievement gaps, on Sure Start and on supporting good parenting.

Six months before a general election, Labour needs to do a lot better.

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward. She writes in a personal capacity.

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