The Consultation document for Early Years, Education and Skills says that this year’s task for the Commission was to to do
“further work on building a modern early years system, developing a schools system for the 21st century, modernising further education and adult skills and how we can improve children’s social care and safeguarding as priorities for this year”.
The opening section (Labour’s Vision) assures us that Labour wants to build a world-class early years, education and skills system system that serves all. But then, of course, everyone says that. Equally generally, we are also told that “Labour’s aim is to build a National Education Service which would be open to all throughout their lives”. The lack of clear specific ideas, on this and in the rest of the document, is disconcerting.
In what follows I will suggest amendments only on the section entitled Labour’s vision and A school system fit for the 21st century. The problems of early years provision are serious but less institutionally complex than those of schools and anyway were the subject of last year’s NPF report. The section on further education and skills training requires comment but is a vast issue that is beyond my competence to write about. Others will, I hope, contribute ideas on this.
The section A school system fit for the 2lst century is 255 words long. It acknowledges that our schools have experienced a “tide of constant upheaval and relentless changes since the Tories came to power in 2010” and says that regional variations in the quality of provision have worsened. It also says that “Tory plans to bring back selection at 11 and open new grammar schools will only serve the minority of children” and that “It will do nothing for the majority of children”. Also cuts of £3bn by 2020 and the new funding formula are making things worse. Finally, schools now have a crisis of infrastructure and support services.
The draft document’s answer to all this is “We are looking at how we can build a world-class education system that promotes sustainable school improvement, is evidence based and supports teachers and the wider school workforce”. That is the entirety of Labour’s “response” to the “tide of constant upheaval and relentless changes since the Tories came to power in 2010”. The need for something more specific should be clear.
Suggestions for additions/amendments to the draft
1. Additions to “Labour’s Vision”
Labour’s aim is for all state-funded schools to cater for local children and do so without selection so that all children, whatever their background, will not only get a good education but will also learn to get on with other children from a wide variety of backgrounds. School should bring children together not separate them.
The present government has taken us so far in the direction of division and competition between schools that reaching the goal of good local schools for all will not be easy. It will only be achieved by working with everyone concerned with education and on the basis of general agreement.
Labour will work to build a high-quality, truly comprehensive school system. Such a system cannot be properly realised while some state-funded schools continue to select their intake. Our vision of the future is one in which we build on the achievements of our school system (1) to ensure that every child has a good local school to go to and which they feel is deeply embedded in the local community.
Achieving this vision cannot be done by diktat from Westminster and will have to be the work of schools, colleges, parents, teachers, industry and other interested parties. The control of schools from Westminister or by Westminster-appointed officials must come to an end. A local democratic framework for school services must be restored. The present government’s policies have resulted in a dismantling of local authority educational expertise, has removed schools from a local framework and has starved local authorities of the funds needed to provide an adequate service.
Our vision must be one of a genuine public service which brings schools and pupils together instead of separating them. To achieve this we will need the understanding and cooperation of the overwhelming majority of people involved in various ways. Labour will launch a long-term nationwide discussion involving all interested parties around those values with the aim of driving education forward on the basis of broad agreement. Political and social beliefs are connected but not in a simple or straightforward way and this proposal would seek to develop widespread agreement including support across party political divides.
2. Additions to “A school system fit for the 21st century”
The education systems of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland differ in significant respects. In terms of population and in terms of national elections it is the organisation and running of the English system that come to the fore in general elections. The devolved governments control the education of their regions.
To make a school system fit for the 21st century we must abandon once and for all the idea that children have an inherent level of ability which determines their educational futures. School is a place where intelligence of various sorts should be nourished and encouraged to grow so that children constantly discover new potential in themselves. We want the creative spirit to be encouraged and developed in every aspect of education.
To achieve this lofty goal we need an appropriate school system. It is time to move on from the mantra that it is “standards and not structures” that matter. Standards and structures are inter-related in education as they are anywhere else. The breaking up of the English school system into academies and free-schools (i.e. state-funded independent schools) has been wasteful, and divisive. It has set school against school and has brought in private operators to run chains of academy schools. In these cases the schools have found themselves with less freedom than under local authorities and those running the chains are subject to far less public scrutiny than those authorities. The whole exercise has been a giant step towards privatising public provision. Labour will reverse this trend in an orderly way on the basis of widespread discussion with all parties involved.
The role of schooling becomes increasingly important as societies develop and in the modern world with its unprecedented rate of social and technological change this is clearer than ever. It is not only more important but it is more expensive. Children are staying at school longer. Schools need more specialist equipment and specialist teachers to provide children with the rich diversity of possibilities that they need to flourish. We should learn from the experience of of other education systems both positive and negative (2).
We will therefore begin by putting all schools on the same footing with no special privileges for any type of school. We will hand back to local authorities the ability to create and oversee new schools as and when they are properly resourced to do this. As a first step to ending the de-localisation of education through academy chains we will require all schools in academy chains to have their own governing bodies with the same powers as for all other schools. We will also require chains to be overseen by the local authorities in which they operate. We will also change legislation requiring all governors to have expert roles. We want parents, local residents and local councillors to once again play their full part in helping schools to succeed. We will stop state-funded schools being their own admission authorities since this is an open invitation to skewing school intake to the advantage of some schools and the disadvantage of others.
The comprehensive school system was created with parental and cross-party support in response to the recognition of the harm caused by a system of determining a child’s educational potential at the age of eleven and sending them to different institutions following an examination at that age. This was based on now discredited notions of inherent IQ and on the belief that the majority of children would not benefit from the more “academic” approach reserved for a minority in grammar schools. The principle of a common school system for all children was the response. It was never fully implemented and is now being rapidly dismantled.
On the basis of agreement established through well-organised public debate we will legislate to enhance the role of local authorities and to change the way authorities work in education to make them more open and transparent than ever before. We will work to end ability of private interests, working through charitable trusts, to deliver education in state-funded schools.
Above all, we want to end the marketisation of education. Children are not commercial products some of which are inevitably discarded or downgraded in the battle for market position. This idea was always wrong for education. This is widely recognised across the political spectrum and by the great majority of educationalists. Therefore we will end the publication of school league tables while nevertheless making fuller data on school performance available. We will end the over-testing of children because it is harming the quality of education by forcing teachers to teach to the test. This process has also favoured a narrowing curricular focus to English, Mathematics and the Sciences. These subjects are unquestionably essential but so are History, Music and the Arts along with Technology and Sport.
In the shortest possible time we will both reform the system of school inspection and bring to an end the phenomenon of failing schools. It is no more acceptable that children should attend a failing school than that patients should be sent to a failing hospital. Failure of some lines is an inherent part of the operation of markets. This is inappropriate and unacceptable for a school system of the 21st century. At the first sign of any school falling below acceptable standards emergency action will be taken to bring any such school to a good standard. Nothing will be allowed to get in the way of providing children with what they need.
(1) The Truth About Our Schools, Melissa Benn & Janet Downs, Routledge 2016. School Wars – The Battle for Britain’s Education, Melissa Benn, Verso 2011.
(2) Finnish Lessons, Pasi Sahlberg, Teachers College Columbia University 2010. The Life and eath of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch, Basic Books, 2010.