As in so many areas the Corbyn leadership and the 2017 manifesto marked a, welcome and significant, sea change in the party’s direction and vocabulary on education.
Gone was the talk of driving up standards by competition, increased observation and greater punishment of teachers who didn’t make the grade. Instead there were welcome commitments to establish a National Education Service (NES), ensure democratic control of schools, and restore funding cuts and genuine commitments to fund FE and Early Years provision better. But, again like elsewhere, the manifesto only appeared radical because of the context of the defeats of the last 40 years. It was far from as progressive as many previous Labour manifestos, before the 90s, were on education and it was far from what is required to undo the damage to our schools and colleges and set about creating a truly progressive and emancipatory education system.
What should Labour do in Power?
1. Abolish academies and free schools
The majority of secondary schools in England are now academies, although the take up is far less in primaries. Academies, along with free schools, represent the privatisation of our schools. They are private organisations, are not under any local democratic control, being only answerable to themselves, Ofsted and the DFE. Public opinion has shifted on academies, since the backlash against the government White Paper ‘Education Excellence Everywhere’ in 2016. An incoming Labour Government must take all schools and nursery schools back under Local Authority jurisdiction.
2. End private education
The manifesto committed to abolish VAT relief on private schools. Private schools are the source of and reinforce the huge inequality in our society. An in-coming Labour Government must end private education and take these schools into public control.
3. End the divisive grammar-school system
Theresa May is keen to champion grammar schools. Grammar schools again are an engine of inequality. They take the higher achieving children out of other schools. You cannot have grammar schools without out taking higher achieving children out of other schools. They are by their nature divisive and prejudicial. Labour must commit to ensure all schools are comprehensive.
4. A secular education system
Religious schools are also divisive. They attempt to, to a greater or lesser degree, indoctrinate children in their religious doctrines. Labour must end religious schools. They must also ensure that religious education in schools does not preference any religion or system of belief. The RE curriculum must give equal weight to atheism and agnosticism as to religious belief. All schools must be comprehensive and secular.
5. Cooperation and support, not competition – dismantle Ofsted
Our school system must be based on cooperation and collectivism not on competition. The pseudo-market system that has proliferated in the last 30 years has had a detrimental effect on many children’s education and has driven thousands of professionals out of education. A Corbyn led Labour government must dismantle this system. It must abolish Ofsted and end school league tables. It needs to replace this system with an accountability culture founded on recognition of education workers' responsibility and professional autonomy, with a voice for all of those involved in education, including the students, young people and pupils who are receiving it.
6. Nationalise the exam boards
As well as ending competition between schools Labour must nationalise the exams boards so that all assessment is at an agreed level and that there is not a market in qualifications. The nationalised exam board must be organised on the basis of expert knowledge and agreed curriculum targets not on targets for passing and failing students.
7. For ongoing, varied assessment – scrap SATs and GCSEs
Alongside the culture of competition between schools there has grown an equally, if not more, damaging culture within schools. Much of this is based on the need to get ‘results’ which are measured through high-stakes testing. This testing is used to measure and label children and education workers alike. On assuming office Labour must immediately scrap SATs tests and GCSEs and replace them with on-going, continuous assessment and a variety of assessment and reward systems not simply summative high stakes testing.
The current testing culture has had a disastrous effect on the mental health of our young people with a spike of under-11s being referred for mental health help. It has also had awful consequences for professionalism and the relationship between education professionals and the children and young people they work with. It is not just parents’ groups and the unions who have recognised the failure of the ‘exam factory’ culture. The bosses’ organisation the CBI has condemned it and called for the scrapping of GCSEs. Their concerns are that we are producing young people who can get through exam ‘hoops’ but can’t critically think, problem solve or evaluate.
8. Develop and nurture children – abolish streaming and setting
Labour should then move on to remove streaming and setting from schools. Young people are not simple labels, all of them have different combinations of skills and aptitudes. The current system is more concerned with labelling and differentiating than developing and nurturing. Alongside this there must be legislation to end the spiralling and draconian practice of detention, which is used now in schools as almost an indiscriminate punishment.
9. An expanded curriculum – restore creative subjects and social sciences
Beyond the immediate ending of exam factories and punitive internal regimes, Labour must address the terrible narrowing of the curriculum. It must ensure that a wide-range of subjects are available and taught well throughout secondary, restoring arts, creative and social science courses where they have been cut. The primary curriculum needs an entire over-haul restoring creativity to the central concerns of schools. Labour should pick up the direction of the Rose Review (commissioned by the Brown government and due to be implemented by it, but scrapped by the coalition and Gove) and the concurrent Cambridge Review (led by Professor Robin Alexander). Since these reviews, tragically primary education has moved in the opposite direction to the re-birth of creativity suggested by them.
10. Fully-funded education free to all
Currently, schools face a huge funding crisis. 91% of schools face real terms budget cuts compared to 2015-6. £2.8bn has been cut from school budgets since 2016. Labour must commit to restore funding to their high point in 2010. It must also ensure that education at all levels is free to access to everyone.
On being elected Labour should restore the Educational Maintenance Allowance and make it a living grant for all post-16 students. It should ensure all pre-16 students receive free school meals. Neither of these steps should be means tested.
11. Tackle the staffing crisis – reduce teachers’ hours and restore national pay bargaining
Many schools cannot now attract the teachers they need. This is often referred to as a recruitment crisis. In fact there are plenty of qualified teachers just many of them do not want to teach in the current system. Radical action is required by any Labour Government to address teacher workload (the average teachers hours are about 60 hours a week) and pay for all education workers (teaching assistant are amongst the worst paid workers in the country). Immediately, Labour will need to restore national pay bargaining for all education workers and institute a maximum 45-hour week.
12. Expand local democratic control of schools
Finally, to ensure that the education agenda is driven by and not against those who work in the profession and the young people they educate, school governors should have representation by trade unions (not staff reps whose duty is to the school not their colleagues) and elected student or pupil representatives. This representation should also occur in the Local Education Authorities.
If an incoming Labour Government carried this out, the promise of the NES would indeed be as radical as the implementation of the NHS was 70 years ago.
By David Pendletone