Reconstruction in an age of demolition

A national project is always a ‘work in progress’ as implied by the title of Carol Ann Duffy’s brilliant performance piece based on the words of people across the country during the EU referendum campaign.

So what sort of work is our national project? A collective effort to build a better society or a ‘war of all against all’? Reconstruction or demolition?

It does feel like we are going through a self-destructive phase as a country. Much of our national effort is being devoted to dividing and demolishing rather than unifying and building. Examples abound, but the colossal demolition job represented by Brexit is perhaps the most obvious; committing us to years of dismantling for little evident benefit while also hardening and deepening divisions in our society. Under the circumstances it seems reasonable to ask: what is our strategy for repair and reconstruction?

Another example of national self-harm is the continuing disinvestment from our public services and the widening inequality it leads to. One recent story in the education press crystallised the inequality of educational opportunities for young people in England. It contrasted on the one hand the 16-year-old apprentice groundskeeper for whom general education will effectively cease, paid £3.50 an hour by a private fee-paying school to tend their extensive playing fields with on the other hand other 16 year olds attending that school at a cost of £35,000 per year – safely on track for several years more education and on the high road to a well-remunerated career. The chasm of opportunity between these 16-year-old is as wide as that between tower block residents in North Kensington and their more affluent neighbours in Notting Hill. If we find this shocking, what is our strategy for repair and reconstruction?

I was asked to review the current condition of post-16 education within the wider political context. In many ways, 16-19 education in England is a case study of deconstruction and disinvestment and it offers a warning of where pre-16 education could be heading. It is characterised by selection, marketisation, low expectations and inadequate investment. To take these in turn:

Selection:

We are plagued by binary thinking about learners and providers: ‘top’ universities, ‘academic’ students, the ‘skills sector’, ‘technical’ qualifications etc. These categories limit our thinking about young people’s capacities, they narrow horizons and undermine the idea of a universal entitlement to a broad general education. If we believe in a comprehensive system, we need to take care not to buy into these binary models which dictate what ‘kind’ of students we serve and what ‘kind’ of pathways we offer them. Rather than describing our learners as ‘bright’ or ‘less able’, ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’, comprehensive colleges like mine can offer countless stories of students who left school as ‘failures’ at 16 and have subsequently reached university after starting on level 2 or even level 1 qualifications.

Marketisation:

We operate in a market free-for-all where institutions decide what to offer and how selective to be and where there is no coherent planning to respond to need. The growth in the number of smaller, niche providers leads to consumer confusion and a rush to the ‘elite’ end of the market. At a time of limited resources, too much spending is tied up in wasteful duplication rather than improving the offer. New providers proliferate, leading both to over-capacity and lack of choice. The result is both Knowsley and Newham; the one with no A-level capacity available within the local authority area and the other with too much.

Low expectations:

We are simply not offering our 16-19-year-olds the full-time, rounded education which would equip them properly for life in the 21st century. Whatever the pathway, none of our typical 17h a week programmes are providing either the breadth or the specialisation which young people need. No other developed country allows its teenagers to stop studying their national language – whether on a general or a vocational programme and we have no expectation of citizenship or cultural education post-16. We need to raise our expectations of what all young people should be studying and could achieve. This could be done via a national baccalaureate which guaranteed access to the full curriculum; allowing for breadth, choice, exploration and specialisation. Having higher expectations does not necessarily require more high-stakes testing; putting students under even more pressure is not the best way to raise their educational achievements.

Inadequate investment:

16-18 provision is at the bottom of a funding ‘Grand Canyon’ with less being spent per student than in the school and higher education phases on either side. We may have made the transition to a fair national funding formula some years ago but we are simply not using it to invest enough in this critical phase of education. Rather than simply moaning about how underfunded we are, we need to make the case for ‘something for something’; investment in the more expansive and ambitious education we want for all our students.

Developing the alternative:

What of the alternative education policies which were on offer at the election? Labour was right to focus on universal free public education as an entitlement. And above all else, the idea of a National Education Service offered an answer the question about how we might bridge divides and reconstruct a proper national system – something which most developed countries take for granted. The party now needs to flesh out the concept and populate it with some strong signature policies, for example a single status for all schools, a national baccalaureate for all by age 19, a lifelong learning entitlement and a national civic service. Labour should also be drafting a single short Education Bill to create a new system in order to be ready to legislate immediately on taking office. As with the creation of the National Health Service, there will be lots of practical issues to be resolved about how accountability is shared and resources allocated. As with the NHS, a National Education Service will face many challenges. The important thing is to make a start on the construction of a system which we can then debate passionately as we continue to shape it.

All around us, the deconstruction of public education continues apace while we all work hard to do the best we can in our own sphere of influence. How much more worthwhile would it be if we could all work together to lay the foundations of a better system. That would be the kind of constructive ‘work in progress’ we could all sign up to.

One of the reasons for calling the 2017 general election was ostensibly to strengthen national unity. But the result has shown that simply speaking the language of unity is not enough, we need policies and actions which are genuinely capable of healing our divisions and building on the best of our capacities. We need to switch our default setting from demolition to construction.

Based on a speech made at the Annual Conference of the Socialist Educational Association (SEA) on June 24th 2017.

See also:

Education 2022: market or system? (June 2017)

Dear candidates (April 2017)

Shaping an alternative education policy (April 2017)

Going beyond (October 2016)

16-19 education: from independence to interdependence (April 2016)

Starting to think about a National Education Service (September 2015)

For a National Education Service (July 2015)

About Eddie Playfair

Principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) East London. Blogging about education, politics and culture in a personal capacity. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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