Lucy Powell comes out from the shadows… and into a very tough job

Chris Husbands

There’s currently some controversy about whether teachers should – or should not – ask children to put their hands up to answer classroom questions. My IOE colleague Dylan Wiliam has argued that they shouldn’t – the teacher should simply decide who to ask, making sure that all children are involved; the DfE’s latest ‘behaviour tsar’, Tom Bennett takes a different, more traditional view. But: hands up if you had, a week ago, heard of Lucy Powell.

Lucy Powell is Labour’s new shadow secretary of state for education. An MP since 2012, she was chief of staff to Ed Miliband before the election. Schools Week’s indefatigable Laura McInerney produced a useful quick biographical note. But it’s rumoured that one of the people who may have kept his hand down when asked the question above would have been the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is reported never to have met Lucy Powell before appointing her to lead a policy area which he is said to regard as one of the most important.

Lucy Powell faces a thankless task: being ‘shadow’ minister for anything is not for the faint-hearted. There are few resources: no civil service to develop policies; no teams of speech-writers to de-bug draft texts; no decisions to be made. Instead shadow ministers need to do two things: to respond, at a moment’s notice, and with the appearance of careful planning and deep thought, to any decision made by government and, whilst doing that, to develop a coherent, workable, realistic, costed set of distinctive policies. Opposition is hard grind.

Government has an ambitious agenda for education change. Over the next three years almost every element of the curriculum, assessment, accountability and funding of English education will be changed. We can almost guarantee that things will go wrong for government – simply because, as Ivor Crewe and Anthony King catalogue remorselessly in their endlessly interesting The Blunders of our Governments, they always do. It is always easy for opposition spokespeople to bring out the standard lines about catastrophic planning and mismanagement. But that’s the easy work.

More difficult for Lucy Powell will be to develop Labour policy while the education service is being remade around a Conservative vision. Two examples make the point. The Labour left have been characterised by a visceral opposition to academies, ever since their own party introduced them in 2002. Lucy Powell has already realised that, should she take over as secretary of state in 2020, academies will form the overwhelming majority of secondary schools. And a very significant number of academy heads and teachers are Labour supporters or members.

Improving vocational education has also been a strongly totemic policy for the Labour left, ensuring that options for young people who will not go to university – more than half of all 18 year olds – are as clear and of as high quality as academic routes. By 2020 the present government will have embedded the English Baccalaureate in the assessment and accountability system, reshaped further education and developed its own model for apprenticeships.

Democratic politics depends on engaged opposition as much as on winning elections: any government’s ideas are amended through constructive challenge. Lucy Powell will need to look long and hard at the profound changes happening in education: not just in our schools, but in our further education colleges and early years settings too; she will need to look not just at what the government is proposing but at the often imaginative and unexpected responses which perceptive and thoughtful leaders are making to government policies. She will need to set England’s experience in the context of rapid policy changes elsewhere: she could do far worse than spend time reading the OECD’s excellent 2015 Education Policy Outlook. And as the education system changes, she will need to be willing to challenge not just government – which is always the easy bit – but many in her own party.

Picture caption: Once and future Labour education secretaries? Powell with David Blunkett in 2010

Photo by Labour https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/legalcode

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Posted in Education policy

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