“One nation under a groove … is what we’re funkin’ for” sang George Clinton’s Funkadelic in the late 1970’s. After I bought the single I had the tune in my head for weeks. It was funky and catchy and the lyrics seemed to suggest unity around more than just hippy hedonism.
The phrase goes back much further of course. Despite being borrowed from Disraeli, who was a Tory, “one nation” can be a useful slogan for Labour. As with the “big society” it promises to be a starting point to define principles and policies capable of healing a fractured society. But as with the “big society”, failure to fill in the detail could invite ridicule and cynicism.
In education, “one nation” may be a decent label, but the bottle itself is still a rather empty vessel. Labour needs to start filling it pretty soon with policies which could help us move towards a less divided, more cohesive society. So, for example, what education policies might be inspired by “one nation”? Here are three ideas to begin with:
- The “one nation” school: We all want good local comprehensives but by 2015 we will be faced with a complex hierarchy of schools and people will be weary of government’s obsession with structures and novelty; academy conversion, whether voluntary or forced, free schools, University Technical Colleges and so on. An incoming government should quickly establish a single status for all publicly funded schools which finds a good balance between institutional autonomy and system-wide planning (eg: on fair admissions). This would defuse the issue of structure and allow all schools to concentrate on teaching, learning, standards and contribute to area improvement.
- The “one nation” curriculum: English education is also increasingly hierarchical in terms of what is taught. The privileging of English Bacc subjects at GCSE and facilitating subjects at A-level has moved us away from any parity of esteem between subjects or between ‘applied’ and ‘general’ learning. We need a single framework which offers all young people a broad, liberal education and contains both practical and theoretical elements as well as an increasing degree of choice; all within an overarching baccalaureate or diploma which values the achievements of all learners. Talk of a “forgotten 50%” simply reinforces a binary divide and says nothing about actual students or the way they learn. Vocational education can prepare for university and general learning for employment and focusing on “skills” does not, of itself, create the jobs young people need.
- The “one nation” education service: We no longer have any kind of recognisable education “system”. What we have is more like a market free-for-all with competing schools and chains of schools each fighting to be slightly more desirable than their neighbours. Such a system has many losers and cannot guarantee equity or improvement overall. There are very limited democratic means for people to shape education provision in their area and hold the system to account. It’s time to re-discover the elected local education authority and give it real responsibility for whole-system leadership, guaranteeing fairness, standards and improvement for all within their area.
In these ways “one nation” can be applied to show what an education system might look like where all learners, all subjects and all institutions are regarded as having equal value. This could just as well be applied to early years and further and higher education but I offer these three examples to demonstrate how a new government could start turning the slogan into reality.
But if “one nation” turns out to be as empty as the “big society”, we may end up recalling a very different Funkadelic lyric: “Maggot Brain”, and that’s definitely not what we’re funkin’ for.