Ambition drives success. When launched in February 2004, Building school for the future (BSF) was the largest and most ambitious scheme of its kind anywhere in the world. Its aim was to transform education for some 3.3m pupils aged 11 to 19. BSF was designed to give schools the opportunity to make transformational changes – it was about achieving step change, not incremental change. Thanks to the Tory Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove (abetted by his Lib Dem allies) this opportunity, this ‘once in a generation’ opportunity has now gone. So what should Labour do now? How should it respond to the new education landscape? Simply expressing annoyance can never be enough, ‘raging against the machine’ is an emotion, not a policy or a winning strategy.
Education goes to the heart of what the Labour party stands for, everything we must do to make a Britain a fairer and more equal society. Our record in office these past 13 years is one we can be proud of. However the truth still remains that our education system has always been excellent for a minority - educated at many of the best schools and universities in the world, achieving the highest international standards for the top 10%. The cancellation of BSF which in effect means the denial of 5 star teaching facilities for millions of our young people will only entrench the three-tierism of the past: excellence for a minority, mediocrity for the majority, outright failure at the bottom.
Labour must make the case in opposition that it is no longer enough to simply talk about providing educational opportunities for all; educational achievement must be extended too. Creating an education system that extends opportunity and achievement for all whilst at the same time promoting equity and excellence, this must be Labour’s programme for government in the future. This isn't just a distant aspiration. The unambiguous evidence from our best all-ability schools today is that where aspirations are high and the parental support strong, then the great majority of young people can and do achieve in terms of good GCSEs at 16 and progression to further qualifications beyond, whether vocational or academic. In a successful school, achievement isn't a matter of IQ or social class: it is a matter of teaching, aspiration and hard work, underpinned by a school culture which nurtures all three.
We are confronted by a Tory led coalition that appears, both economically and socially, to believe that more means worse and that success is only valuable if it co-exists with widespread failure. These aren't just abstract principles. They continue to animate the Conservative party in its whole approach to education.
Labour must make the case for radical and progressive change. We can continue in the way the education system has for generations: tolerating the failure of some children because of the achievement of a few; accepting mediocrity for the many as the price of advantage for an elite; even going back to selecting children for failure at 5, 11 or 16. Or we can become a country which believes in every child and expects excellence for all; where the talent of every citizen is nurtured and encouraged, from the earliest years onwards; where no child's education is written off because of who they are or where they're from. Labour was founded on educational opportunity and achievement for all and its commitment to rebuilding or refurbishing our nation’s schools under BSF was ambitious and inspired.
The next Labour government should bring back the programme, though this time it should be less bureaucratic and more focused on improving pedagogy. Our opponents will say that it cannot be afforded but the truth is we can’t afford not to.