What we say and do about post-16 education, like everything else, has to be seen in the context of the outcome of the recent general election. Elections are the great democratic moment when the people ‘speak’ and all our individual choices are crystallised into a single collective choice. The outcome is clear; there was no ‘progressive majority’ either in votes or in seats. So now the political dial has been re-set and the terms of debate have been made clearer for the next few years.
This post is not about wider political strategy – what we do as citizens – but ‘professional strategy’ – what we do as educators.
So what are the objective challenges we face in post-16 education:
- Funding cuts: 16-19 year olds are the lowest funded students in education. Funding for 18 year olds, enrichment and broader programmes have all been drastically cut over the last 5 years. Our budget is in the smaller unprotected part of the larger education budget and is therefore the most vulnerable to further cuts.
- More marketization and the selection and segregation which flow from this. I have written elsewhere about how increasing marketization works against the development of a fair and equitable system by pitting provider against provider.
- Continuing tension between educational and economic aims with a likely shift from investment in education towards investment in training and apprenticeships.
- A sense of a general lack of trust in the system and those of us who work in it as demonstrated by our inspection and audit regimes.
In this context it is easy to despair. ‘Don’t mourn, organise!’ is a good mantra in such situations. Mourning has its place but our response should be neither blind despair nor blind hope. We need to understand the objective political reality and to build our hope from a sound base. We must mourn, analyse and organise, oppose and propose, critique and build.
Another much quoted mantra is Gramsci’s: ‘pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will’. This offers a good warning against both wishful thinking and resignation. But as the writer Mike Marqusee pointed out in a 2012 piece, ‘intellect’ and ‘will’ should not be seen as being opposites. Relentless pessimism can be debilitating and excessive optimism can compromise intellectual clarity. We need rational grounds for optimism. To make hope real we need to invest in it and, in Mike Marqusee’s words, engage in ‘a determined search for the levers of change in the here and now coupled with the imagining of a just and sustainable human society, a better human future which is a necessary prelude to making that future a concrete possibility.’
We should start from first principles and remind ourselves what we think education is for. Let’s be clear about our values and hold on to them. I would suggest that those values can be summed up as: equality, democracy, solidarity, education for human progress and human flourishing.
I think we have a responsibility to do the advance work now to create a new common sense about post-16 education. One which could contribute to creating a new political common sense by 2020. There is no blueprint and first we need to discuss the direction of travel.
So here are just a few suggestions about what this work might involve:
- Taking every opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to our students, to high standards and to partnership working. This is how we win friends, advocates and allies at all levels.
- Working with what we have, finding new partners, building new coalitions and creating new structures.
- Networking and federating as much as possible to build on the strengths and experience within our colleges and universities.
- Creating a National Baccalaureate for 16-19 year olds and spreading an entitlement to the broadest possible curriculum from the bottom up.
- Embracing technology to ensure that our students benefit from the best materials and methods we can collectively offer.
- Defending education up to the age of 18 while also advocating an economic policy which provides real jobs.
- Encouraging the creation of comprehensive local systems through new kinds of partnership, national and local. Rather than being anti-academy we need to be pro-system.
- Encouraging the creation of new democratic structures such as education forums at both local and regional levels using our stakeholders and elected politicians and using these structures to engage with statutory agencies such as the Regional School Commissioners.
Could these ideas also become new bargaining points for post-16 education workers? As well as defending their members’ pay and conditions, should the unions argue for educational content, for a genuinely comprehensive post-16 curriculum as well as for training opportunities, for a living wage for apprenticeships, for partnership between our institutions, for a democratic voice in education decision-making?
We need to create the conditions and the space for a new great debate, build support for a National Education Service, get people talking about education as if it mattered and as if we could actually change it, even if our margin of action is somewhat limited at the moment.
If we do the groundwork, this could help to build a new majority which really values post-16 education. That groundwork needs to start now. It won’t be easy but it is essential.
Speech written for a meeting of the Brighton Campaign for Education at Brighton Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College (BHASVIC) on June 8th 2015
Listening to our post-16 conscience (May 2015)