For a pragmatic idealism

We all have a range of perspectives on education arising from our various roles: professional, personal and political. In those roles, whether as teachers, learners, parents, governors or trade unionists we need to find ways of dealing with the world as it is and ways of keeping alive the idea of the world as we would wish it to be.

Whatever our perspectives, as progressives we share the same values; a commitment to equality, democracy, solidarity and education for personal flourishing and social progress.

Acknowledging the world as it is means recognising that in the general election on May 7th there was no ‘progressive majority’ either in votes or in seats. As individuals we are pretty powerless to make much of a difference to the world as it is. But when we act collectively in organisations, partnerships and campaigns there is some hope that we can make a difference.

If we really want to build a new progressive consensus on education, we will need to create the conditions for a new common sense. This is not something one does through an election campaign, the political and cultural advance work needs to be done well before. Only when a set of values and ideas is widely accepted as sensible and possible will politicians follow with their support. We need to do our advance work now.

I was asked to speak about the phase of education I know best, so what is happening in post-16 education?

Every phase of education is important and distinctive and none should make any claim to primacy. 16-19 education is characterised by the transition to adulthood. It is a time when young people raise their sights above their immediate concerns and relationships and start to think about how they can make a difference in the world, as workers, citizens and agents of change. It is a time of developing intellectual, social and emotional awareness.

Clearly it is a crucial phase and as a society we need to agree what our aims are for young people at this stage. To put the question as Richard Pring did in the Nuffield 14-19 review: ‘what do we mean by an educated 19 year old?’ What combinations of breadth and specialisation, knowledge, experiences and skills development will achieve this?

But instead of trying to answer these crucial questions, we have a system based on testing, labelling, sorting and segregating.

Some of the challenges we face at the moment:

  • Funding: education for 16-19 year olds is the lowest funded of all sectors of education with roughly £4,000 of public funding annually per full time student compared to roughly £5,000 in schools and £9,000 in universities. Despite the raising of the participation age to 18, funding for this age group is in the unprotected part of the Department for Education’s budget and is therefore the most vulnerable to further cuts. Our best guess is that these cuts could amount to a further 20% in cash terms over the next 3 years. This inevitably means that an increasing number of school sixth forms and colleges will become fragile and vulnerable.
  • Further marketization which leads to intense competition, selection and segregation – this works against the development of a fair and equitable system by pitting provider against provider, narrowing options and reducing efficiency. Our phase is a hyper-competitive ‘wild west’ – an object lesson for anyone who wants to see where further marketization leads.
  • Continuing tension between the educational and the economic with a likely shift from investment in education towards investment in training and apprenticeships.
  • A general lack of national purpose or confidence in the system and those of us who work in it as demonstrated by reduced funding and our inspection and audit regimes. Our high levels of autonomy don’t seem to translate into high levels of trust.

So how do we begin to respond? What political strategy is appropriate?

In my view we need to:

  • Take every opportunity to show our commitment to students and to high standards and expectations.
  • Defend education to 18 against narrow job training while also developing an economic policy which can deliver work and high quality training for more young people.
  • Work with what we have and find new, even unlikely, partners, build new coalitions and create new structures. Roberto Unger talks in terms of democratic experimentalism. We need to question many of our assumptions and ask a lot more ‘what if…?’ questions about the way we do things and be prepared to do them differently.
  • Support the development of the National Baccalaureate which is being built from the bottom by practitioners. This should include all students and offer the broadest possible combination of general and practical learning for 14-19 year olds.
  • Demonstrate how we could reinvent a system. Rather than being anti-academy we need to be pro-system. We need to encourage the creation of comprehensive local systems involving all providers working in new kinds of partnership; national, regional and local.
  • Encourage the creation of new democratic structures such as education forums at both local and regional levels, involving all our stakeholders.

These demands 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 could also become the ingredients of collective bargaining by post-16 education workers.

Beyond that, what kind of wider organisation do we need? Is it time for the various groups with similar agendas to federate? To build a single network for public education; an alliance built around shared values with different parts playing different roles: Reclaim Education has made a start in bringing different campaigns together. Perhaps it needs to become something like the Network for Public Education in the US; a loose federation of organisations which have different priorities and knowledge but share some key basic principles and aims. Each brings something different; research, advocacy, campaigning, representation, political links and the network itself is able to achieve more than the sum of its parts.

We need to create the conditions and the opportunities to start building a new common sense; a national education system which can actually meet our needs as individuals and as a society. We need to identify the building blocks of that project even if our margin of action is somewhat limited at the moment. This is both a practical and a visionary approach – something we might call pragmatic idealism.

If we do this work, it can only be a positive contribution to building the new progressive majority this country needs.

Speech to the conference of the Socialist Educational Association (SEA), 27th June 2015.

See also:

Snatching hope from the jaws of despair (on professional strategy).

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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2 Responses to For a pragmatic idealism

  1. dancingprincesses says:

    Interesting & timely rallying cry re federated approaches. It would need to cross educational sectors of course – organisations in FE with potential roles might include TELL, LSRN & Tutor Voices. There are many others. UCU & ATL of course too.


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