For a National Education Service

Jeremy Corbyn, who is standing for the Labour leadership, is the first leading politician to advocate a National Education Service as far as I know. His speech on this can be read here.

So what might an N.E.S look like? How might it be brought about? Could English education experience its N.H.S moment?

I wrote about this in the Spring edition of the journal Forum as part of an article making the case against marketization in education. I concluded by imagining two different futures for English education following the 2015 general election, one (Future A) based on an extension of marketization and the other (Future B) on the development of a National Education Service. The full piece can be read here, but I thought I would also offer an updated post-election case for this future here.

Creating a National Education Service

The new progressive majority at Westminster was aware of the level of popular dissatisfaction with the incoherence and chaos people were experiencing across all the phases of education and was clear about the need for change. Continuing with the reforms of the previous government was clearly not an option.

National politicians asked themselves whether the answers might perhaps be found in the imagination and daily practice of the people actually concerned with education. So within a few weeks of the election they launched a national Great Debate about the purpose and organisation of education in England. This willingness to listen to people turned out to be their most radical decision.

The Great Debate aimed to involve everyone in considering a few simple questions:

  • What do we want from education?
  • What is an educated person?
  • How do we ensure that everyone gets the best possible education?

The initial Great Debate was given a month in order to focus everyone’s minds and instil a sense of urgency. It was conducted on-line, using social media, in public meetings large and small, inside and outside school classrooms and in outreach activity to ensure that everyone, including children and young people, had the opportunity to express their views. Public involvement in the process was very high, different opinions were respected and the views of ‘experts’ and education professionals were given equal weight to those of everyone else.

As the Great Debate got going, people got excited. They were being listened to and they were setting the agenda. Having voted to hand power to politicians, they were now being asked how that power should be used. The discussions generated many brilliant ideas and the deliberation and aggregation process throughout the month meant that the most popular themes started to emerge and people could return to the debate at different stages.

It became clear quite early on that there was a real consensus that England needs a common national education system with both social and personal objectives to meet the needs of all its people.

One of the most popular emerging themes was “education needs to be like the NHS” and that was actually one of the key outcomes: a groundswell of support for a comprehensive national education system based on agreed common aims, cooperation and universalism rather than competition and selection.

Even before any policies were implemented, the sheer breadth and depth of the national debate gave people the confidence that change is possible and promoted a degree of optimism about the future. Another outcome was a real celebration of the work of teachers and pride in the work of students. Many participants said that learning directly about what happens in our schools and universities had surprised and impressed them and inspired them to get more involved themselves.

Following this Great Debate, the legal status of all publicly funded schools was quickly harmonised so that they all operated on the same basis. The school curriculum was redefined in terms of human flourishing as well as the fundamental knowledge and skills that everyone needs to build on to be a successful contributor to society. There was support for both breadth and specialisation at upper secondary level with no options being closed off at any age.

Once the national aims were agreed, the new system needed to be built from the existing one with collaboration around nationally agreed shared aims, core entitlements and funding as givens. The English regions were given the right to elect education councils to oversee the development of the system in their region using all the educational resources available. These elections gave the new councils a strong mandate to develop a distinctive approach for their area within the national aims. The limited funding available was boosted by a ‘partnership premium’, money previously tied up in competition and duplication. There was room for specialisation as well as regional and local innovation and some regions are now leading on different themes and sharing this work nationally and they have created new forums for action research, evaluation, curriculum and professional development.

The talents and skills of the nation’s young people were increasingly recognised and celebrated including their contribution to community and cultural life and the impact of their research. These are all valued within the school leavers’ National Baccalaureate.

There were the beginnings of a renaissance of adult education in various forms as universities worked with other parts of the education service to reach out more and respond to the needs and interests of all adults in their region. Reading groups, current affairs groups, cultural activity, community organising and volunteering all fed in to university extramural programmes with a consequential strengthening of both geographical and virtual solidarity.

In fact, the Great Debate has never really stopped. People found that they wanted to contribute to education and to help shape the new system. Momentum was built through local education forums across the country which informed the work of the new education councils and helped hold them to account between elections. People’s attachment to their education service and the idea of public service generally was strengthened by this activity.

Popular TV shows include ‘Amazing Youth’ presented by young people featuring a range of research and community projects they have conceived and led and ‘Speak Up’ where young people from all over the country get to express their views and make their case for social change which can then be voted on by the audience.

By the end of the government’s first term, educational inequality had not been abolished but there was some evidence that the gaps were narrowing. Not everyone was satisfied with the rate of progress and funding remained tight. However, people were proud of the ‘new’ system, positive about its contribution to society and optimistic about its future. There does seem to be a consensus around the aims and values established through the Great Debate. By the time of the next election, all the major parties were committed to the new system and the policy differences were mostly about resource allocation and curriculum priorities.

There is choice and diversity within this comprehensive system but very little advocacy of greater competition or market incentives. There is friendly rivalry between different parts of the service as they strive to offer the best to their communities but this is combined with a commitment to sharing what they do best to help the whole service improve.

See also:

Market madness – condition critical (June 2015)

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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