The heady summer campaign is over and a new leader has been elected. It’s time for the party to turn its attention to policy development as well as effective opposition. Across the whole spectrum of public policy, the party needs to build the alternative vision capable of winning in 2020.
In education the challenge is great. England lacks both a vision of what education is for and the system of public education capable of fulfilling our educational aspirations. The next government will inherit a chaotic market with a vacuum where a coherent national strategy or needs-driven planning should be. Different school types run by a bewildering range of unelected bodies will be competing in an unequal contest for students and results. Selection, both covert and overt will be increasingly prevalent and distinct segregated pathways from age 14 seen as the norm. Students seen as ‘less academic’ will be steered towards non-educational ‘training’ routes with reduced opportunities for breadth and depth of learning and no improved prospect of employment.
In the face of such a mess, will it be possible to turn things around and set a course in a more egalitarian and democratic direction? It will, but this will require nothing less than the creation of a new system. We need a system which can offer sensible answers to the key questions: what is education for? What kind of education do we want? Education needs to have its ‘NHS moment’ where a commitment to doing things differently is forged. Such a commitment needs to be based on the wider public interest while also responding to the aspirations and ambitions of individuals. We’ve lost much of the ‘hard wiring’ which a good system needs and it will be necessary to build on the commitment of parents, teachers and other education staff to start to ‘re-wire’ our system based on different values.
So how do we begin?
- We need to work out what values we want to base education on. For Labour, there should be no question that these must be grounded in equality and opportunity for all. Our vision must be generous and inclusive; based on the belief that everyone can benefit from a full, broad education and everyone is entitled to access the best that our system can offer.
- All the resources of publicly funded education provision should be mobilised as part of a national education system. Requiring education providers to work together in the interests of their communities should release a ‘co-operative dividend’ by squeezing out much of the waste and inefficiency of market competition. The new system might not be based on markets but it can still offer diversity and allow for choice in a way which need not disadvantage anyone. The planning and regulation to ensure quality and equality will need to be light-touch, with a minimum of bureaucracy.
- There needs to be a new settlement between national, regional and local levels of government about where to locate different responsibilities. This would include a fair national funding system and admissions processes as well as a new level playing field with a single status for all schools which describes their degree of autonomy as well as their accountability to local and national government. This will mean a shift from competing academy chains towards local and regional collaborative networks. Strategic planning and decision-making should be transparent and subject to democratic scrutiny. A regional level will be needed for post-16 and higher education where catchments are wider and specialisation greater.
- Any national curriculum will need to command widespread support, to be broad and challenging and apply to all while allowing for some innovation and experimentation at school and regional levels. We should aim to give young people the tools and the opportunities to access the best our culture has to offer and to develop skills which allow them to make a difference in the world.
The architecture of such a national system could be created by a single Education Act of the ‘Reclaiming Education’ type early in the new parliament and we should be drafting this legislation now. But the work of building support for such a system, of embedding and developing it will need to come from ongoing deliberation, a continuing ‘great debate’ about the role of education in our society – both before and after 2020.
There will be many special interests to take on but the idea of a progressive national education service for all is one which surely has the potential to command majority support and help a party win elections.
Choosing a new leader is just the start of a process of renewal. It’s now time to start the debate that we need and make sure that it is informed by the best of our values.
Starting to think about a National Education Service (September 2015)
For a National Education Service (July 2015)
Market madness: condition critical (June 2015)
Market madness #4 A good system can help schools improve (August 2014)