As in so many areas Labour's 2017 manifesto marked a welcome and significant sea change in the party’s direction and vocabulary on education.
Gone was the talk of driving up standards by competition, increased observation and punishment of teachers who didn’t make the grade. Instead there were welcome commitments to establish a National Education Service (NES), ensure democratic control of schools, and restore funding cuts and genuine commitments to fund further education and Early Years provision better.
However, the manifesto only appeared as radical as it did because of a context of defeats and political retreat for the labour movement over the last 40 years.
The 2017 manifesto was not as progressive on education as those before the 90s and it was far from what is required to undo the damage that has been done to our schools and colleges, and set about creating a truly progressive and emancipatory education system.
This is what a Labour government coming into power should do…
In the first place Labour must tackle the school funding crisis. 91% of schools currently face real terms budget cuts compared to 2015-6. £2.8 billion has been cut from school budgets since 2016. Labour must commit to restore funding to the 2010 high point. It must also ensure that education at all levels is free to access to everyone. Critically, Labour should restore the Educational Maintenance Allowance and make it a living grant for all post-16 students. It should ensure all pre-16 students receive free school meals. Neither of these steps should be means tested.
An astonishing omission from the 2017 manifesto was any mention of academies. The majority of secondary schools in England are now academies, although the take up is far less in primaries.
Academies, along with free schools, represent the privatisation of our schools. They are private organisations, not under any local democratic control, answerable only to themselves, Ofsted and the Department for Education. Public opinion has shifted against academies. An incoming Labour government must take all schools and nursery schools back under Local Authority control.
The manifesto committed to abolish VAT relief on private schools. But private schools are a source of the huge inequality in our society. An in-coming Labour government must end private education and take these schools into public control.
Theresa May is keen to champion grammar schools. But grammar schools are also an engine of inequality, by taking higher achieving children out of other schools. They are by their nature divisive and prejudicial. Labour must commit to ensuring all schools are comprehensive.
Religious schools are also divisive. They attempt to, to a greater or lesser degree, indoctrinate children in their religious doctrines. Labour must introduce a truly secular system. Religious education in schools should not preference any religion or system of belief and give due weight to discussing the values of atheism and agnosticism.
Our school system must be based on cooperation and collectivism not on competition.
The pseudo-market system that has proliferated in the last 30 years has had a detrimental effect on many children’s education and has driven thousands of education workers out of our schools. A Labour government must abolish Ofsted and end school league tables. It needs to replace this system with an accountability culture founded on recognition of education workers' responsibility and professional autonomy, with a voice for all of those involved in education.
Labour must nationalise the exams boards so that all assessment is at an agreed level and that there is not a market in qualifications. A nationalised exam board would be organised on the basis of expert knowledge and agreed curriculum targets rather than targets for passing and failing students. Schools are currently under huge pressure to get “results” which are measured through high-stakes testing. This testing is used to measure and label children and education workers alike. On assuming office Labour must immediately scrap SATs tests and GCSEs and replace them with on-going, continuous assessment and a variety of assessment and reward systems not simply summative high stakes testing.
The current testing culture has had a disastrous effect on the mental health of our young people. It has also damaged the relationship between education professionals and the children and young people they work with. Even the bosses’ organisation the CBI has condemned the testing regime.
Their concern is that schools are producing young people who can get through exam “hoops” but can’t critically think, problem solve or evaluate.
Labour should also remove streaming and setting from schools. Young people have different combinations of skills and aptitudes. The current system is more concerned with labelling and differentiating than developing and nurturing those individual aptitudes.
Labour should end the spiralling and draconian practice of detention, which is used now in schools as almost an indiscriminate punishment.
Beyond this, Labour must address the terrible narrowing of the curriculum. It must ensure that a wide-range of subjects are available and taught well throughout secondary, restoring arts, creative and social science courses where they have been cut. The primary curriculum needs an entire overhaul, restoring creativity as the central concerns of schools.
Many schools cannot now attract the teachers they need. This is often referred to as a recruitment crisis. In fact there are plenty of qualified teachers but many do not want to teach in the current system. Radical action is required by any Labour government to address teacher workload (the average teacher’s hours are about 60 hours a week) and pay decent wages to all education workers (teaching assistant are amongst the worst paid workers in the country). Immediately, Labour will need to introduce national pay bargaining for all education workers and institute a maximum 45-hour week.
Finally, to ensure that the education agenda is driven by and not against those who work in the profession and the young people they educate, school governors should have representation by trade unions (not staff reps whose duty is to the school not their colleagues) and elected student or pupil representatives. This representation should also occur in the Local Education Authorities. If an incoming Labour government carried these measures out, the promise of the National Education Service would indeed be as radical as the implementation of the NHS was 80 years ago.