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Lord Blunkett: Learning the lessons of the past to reform education

4 min read

If commissions were empowered to change the education system, we would certainly see some enormous improvements! In my very long time in politics, I have never known so many different groups forming commissions, of one kind or another, to review the education system.

At the same time, the all-party Commons Select Committee on Education has been conducting an in-depth review of its own, to which I was pleased – along with other former secretaries of state and ministers – to give evidence.

Two decades on from my time in the Department of (what was then) Education and Employment, what is clearly needed must be radical action.

The current Schools Bill, which is in the House of Lords, is almost certainly going to be put on hold while the Department for Education sorts out precisely what it wants to achieve. The bill is very worthy but extremely muddled. It has attracted criticism from all sides of the House, and from outside, but it is what is not in the bill that really disturbs.

There were things I didn’t do, or didn’t do sufficiently vigorously, which could make a difference now

A delay, in order to gain a degree of consensus and find long-term solutions to structural issues within the system, would ensure longevity for changes and an avoidance of unnecessary dislocation.

For example, we should rethink how we provide a maths syllabus and testing of outcomes for young people which builds incrementally on a real understanding of basic arithmetic, numeracy, and interpreting data and statistics. It should be incremental, in the sense that some people will need to go on to the broader mathematical syllabus, which currently results in hundreds of thousands of young people having to retake GCSE maths, and, in some cases, repeatedly.

The former Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, received goodwill from across the political arena. He was seen as competent and is prepared to listen. However, unlike I did 25 years ago, he did not have the commitment of resources that comes from the wholehearted backing of the Prime Minister and goodwill of the Chancellor.

If only, if only those in No 10 and No 11 understood the critical nature of education – both early years and schooling, through into lifelong learning, for success in life and for our economy – we would be in a better place. But we are far from “education, education, education” at the top of the agenda. Even after the pandemic and Sir Kevan Collins’ report on catch-up, there is no sign the government as a whole has any real interest in either understanding or investing in an education service fit for the 21st century.

A good starting point would be to revive the collective memory of what worked, and what didn’t work, from the recent past. So much of what is revived is presented as something new. So much of it is, in fact, a blast from the past.

Let me be honest. There were things I didn’t do, or didn’t do sufficiently vigorously, which could make a difference now.

Greater emphasis on learning for the whole family – begun, but not completed, 25 years ago – would be a starting point. The learning mentors that were in place, the advanced skills teachers, which the Times Education Commission rename “consultant teachers”, the rapid expansion of the proposed “hubs” which reinvent Sure Start in a slightly different form, would all make an enormous difference.

Above all, something I should have done and didn’t do: address the nonsense which constitutes judgment on whether a student has done well enough to obtain a particular grade at GCSE or A-level. Norm referencing and grade boundaries are frankly nonsense. They are a transactional means of ordering pupils to fit a preconceived spread of results. What is needed is a genuine way of assessing how a pupil is progressing, how they’ve done at a particular stage and what needs to be done. But who has the courage to pick up that particular hand grenade?


Lord Blunkett is a Labour peer

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