Comment: Academies dismantled, tuition fees scrapped - what a Corbyn education policy might look like

Lucy Powell was impressive in her role as shadow education minister under Ed Miliband
Lucy Powell was impressive in her role as shadow education minister under Ed Miliband

By Laura McInerney

If Jeremy Corbyn were an omnipotent wizard his education spells would achieve the following:

·  Granting lifelong free education to everyone via a 'National Education Service' (otherwise  known as 'schools and universities')
·  Vamoosing grammar schools off the planet and replacing them with comprehensives
·  Removing the individual charities currently running ‘academy’ schools and letting local authorities step back in and oversee them from town halls.

Thing is, though: Jeremy Corbyn isn't a wizard. He isn't even prime minister. He's just the guy who gets to stand opposite the guy who has the real power.

So what will Corbyn's election to Labour leader really mean for education? On the surface, not much. His party barely put a scratch in the coalition's education plans last time around and there's no evidence his new shadow Cabinet will do any better.

Only one thing makes me nervous about Corbyn and schools. Ninety-seven out of every 100 teachers in England is in a union. It is the country's most unionised profession.


Strikes already occurred over the last parliament in protest against teacher pensions changes. Now that teacher wages are stagnating and a staffing shortage looming, union leaders might see Corbyn's victory as a sign that time is ripe for a more concerted battle. Even with Cameron's planned changes to trade union laws -- which will make striking more difficult -- a large-enough, riled-enough profession could easily decide more walk-outs are a better option than increasingly poor working conditions. If that happens, the battles are likely to roll on for a while.

MIchael Gove's free school system would come under attack if Labour won power

A more immediate and likely impact on schools policy, though, is the selection of Lucy Powell, MP for Manchester Central, as the new shadow education secretary. She was allegedly offered energy minister first, she held out and asked for a role that had "something to do with childcare" – a topic previously under her remit as a shadow education minister throughout 2014.

In that role, her manner was fierce. She regular needled then-children's minister Liz Truss with deliberately difficult questions about Surestart centre closures and childcare costs. In turn, Truss often accused her of 'cherry-picking' evidence.

But the disappointment for the school community will be that Powell's preference is for talking about childcare over curriculum. There's a pattern in education where secretaries of state tend to focus on one or the other: either schools and learning, or families and children's welfare.

With so many things currently going wrong in school reforms – particularly the ill-conceived changes to the examination systems, which have left everyone from primary teachers to university admissions officers scratching their heads in confusion – it just doesn't feel like the right time for someone to take their eye off the ball and start opining about early years.

But, and this will be hard for some people to take, it's nevertheless important that someone does shine a light on childcare and early years because it, too, is in a bit of a mess. The government's bumped-up guarantee of extra free childcare hours is in peril. Childcare costs are rocketing (just like Powell used to tell Truss) and families are struggling to cover it. Schools are being told they should step in and open nurseries, but most of them can't afford it. Many say they are actually going to close their provision.

Student protests against tuition fees: Corbyn plans to scrap the fees.

If Powell can get a groundswell of force behind this issue, she could prompt the government to do something – add cash, change its plans, create a new solution, whatever. And she has the form to do this. With nearly twenty years of PR and campaigning experience under her belt, it should be what she's built for.

She also showed a surprisingly tentative attitude toward free schools and academies yesterday. In interviews she said she and Corbyn agreed that "local oversight" was better than the currently encouraged 'academy' system where schools are run by independent charities. The hint from within is that no further academies would be created: not least because Corbyn has publicly rejected them in his own constituency. But Labour has been round this mill already and last time realised that trying to pull all schools back into town hall oversight would be as energy-sapping and pointless as it was freeing them in the first place.

If renationalisation is really a main focus for Corbyn's shadow Cabinet then perhaps this drum will keep being banged. The greater probability is that a fudged policy will be knocked together whereby schools can remain open but must adhere to stricter rules around local scrutiny.

At the other end of the age range, Corbyn is committed to free university tuition fees, but the likelihood of that seeing the light of day is dependent on him storming the walls of power in 2020 with a mandate to raid the Treasury's coffers to an eye-watering extent.

Laura McInerney is the editor of SchoolsWeek. You can follow her on Twitter here.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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