'On all the major issues facing schools and colleges, Labour has got it'

Labour's National Education Service charter grasps the depth of education's problems. After decades of blame and threat, it's refreshing to hear a different voice from policy-makers, writes Kevin Courtney

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Labour’s draft charter is general and aspirational. It evokes principles rather than nailing down policies. The dots have yet to be joined. The detail has yet to be filled in. There are gaps in the architecture. But one thing stands out: on major issues facing schools and colleges, Labour has got it. It grasps the depth of education’s problems and the scope of the programme that is needed to deal with them.

For nearly 30 years, England’s schools have suffered the effects of a false diagnosis: that the problems of the system stem from the failings of education professionals and that they can only be resolved by relentless pressure on those who work in education to meet the narrow range of targets which constitute educational success.

The charter Angela Rayner launched today speaks the words that can free us from servitude to this restrictive vision and set us thinking about other possibilities. Education is a right and a public good: it is lifelong, both formal and informal. It works best when it is part of a broad and generous social programme. Decisions about its direction and resourcing should be democratically made.

Labour charter's resonance

After decades of an educational rhetoric in which blame and threat have been all too prominent features, it is refreshing to hear from policy-makers a different voice. Nowhere is it clearer than in what the charter has to say about teaching.

If there is one phrase in the charter that has a resonance for teachers, it is the recognition that accountability must be balanced against "genuine freedom of judgement and innovation". Taken alongside the pledge that policy will have "the utmost regard to the well-being of learners and educators", this provides serious grounds for hope that we can emerge from the age of hyper-accountability into one in which the earned expertise of teachers and broad development of students are valued.

The charter does not change the fact that the National Education Service (NES) is still a concept, not a set of policies. There is much to be discussed.

The awkward and unavoidable questions of selection and comprehensive education have not explicitly been posed. To integrate "academic, technical and other forms of learning" is a major challenge, to which English policy-making has never been adequate. Issues of curriculum and assessment are still on the shelf, though it must be clear an NES that aspires to promote full social participation cannot be based on the curriculum and assessment system bequeathed to us by Michael Gove.

Beyond consultation

To carry public and educational opinion through these discussions Labour – as on many other issues – will want to move beyond consultation within the usual channels, so as to take account of the full range of experiences, ambitions and frustrations that have built up around our present system. This is a process to which the National Education Union looks forward with enthusiasm.

For a long time, governments have in some senses – workload, especially – demanded far too much of teachers. In others, such as professional knowledge and invention, they have asked for too little.

Labour’s charter could mark the moment when the energies are released that can get this depressing imbalance to change.

Kevin Courtney is the joint general secretary of the National Education Union. He tweets at @cyclingkev 

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