We humans are natural learners. We are born with an insatiable urge to question, understand and master our environment and to communicate with others. Thanks to memory, language, thought and eventually culture and technology we have been able to extend our reach well beyond a human lifespan by standing on the shoulders of our ancestors and planning for our descendants.
Human society is now highly sophisticated and complex, our technological achievements are amazing. We can send people to the moon and treat diseases which would have killed us only a few years ago. We are also capable of eliminating each other on a mass scale and have developed a number of different ways of destroying our entire planet.
The world which children are born into is unimaginably more complex than it was two or three generations ago let alone a few centuries ago and yet our children still have roughly the same amount of time to learn to make an impact and be fulfilled within their world. This is the challenge of education.
Our complex human society requires a politics of the social which recognises this complexity and offers ways to move society forward rather than simply being based on historic social structures or competition between atomised individuals. Such a politics needs to be based on the idea of equality and other enduring values which flow from it such as democracy and solidarity.
Our education system needs to reflect the kind of society we want. So what would it mean if education was based on these basic principles of equality, democracy and solidarity?
Basing education on a belief in equality means recognising that all humans are equally educable regardless of background and that education should challenge rather than reproduce the existing inequalities in society. To provide equal access to education, we need a system which takes responsibility for educating everyone; one based on the common school, college and university.
A commitment to democracy means recognising that education is the concern of all, not just government ministers or parents exercising school choice and that every citizen should have the opportunity to help shape their national and local education system. Education should also promote democratic practice and schools, colleges and universities should be training grounds for the skills of democratic participation; critical thought, respectful consideration, open and informed debate, research and participation.
A system based on solidarity suggests a National Education Service, a little like the National Health Service, which would aim to meet the educational needs of all and help people live, work and learn together throughout life. It would explicitly aim to bring people together to understand their differences and address major problems; promoting “social cohesion” to use the jargon.
What specific national political programme could we suggest to turn these aspirations into reality? For a start, a few practical measures which need not cost anything:
1. Defining a universal entitlement to free lifelong education for all.
2. All publicly funded schools to have the same status and autonomy and to comply with basic admissions policies and transparency.
3. A new national settlement about how responsibilities and powers are shared between government, local authorities and institutions.
4. Local responsibility for planning, admissions and school improvement to be entrusted to an accountable locally elected authority.
5. A national debate about the aims of education and what should be taught in our schools, colleges and universities.
Based on a talk given to a meeting of Hackney North & Stoke Newington Labour Party on 4th November 2013