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'Teachers must vote to save our education system'

Fred Jarvis, former general secretary of the NUT, writes:

Before the 2010 general election, Mark Serwotka, the ultra-left-wing general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, addressed the annual NUT conference and urged members of that union not to vote Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative.

Although the ultra-left and hard-left members of the NUT led a standing ovation for their hero, I have no doubt that a large majority of the union’s members ignored Mr Serwotka's advice. Whether they did or not, I hope no such advice will be offered by anybody at this year’s NUT conference or, indeed, at any other gathering of teachers, parents and others concerned for the future of education.

This is no time to stand on the sidelines, nor to join the ranks of those who are said to be cynical or distrusting about all politicians or disinterested in politics. After all, in education we’re not a bunch of Russell Brands.

For while there is endless speculation as to the likely outcome of this year’s election, and most pundits are saying they have no idea which party will win, one thing is clear: this is going to be a watershed moment – indeed, a turning point – for education in this country.

The cynics may say of the politicians that "they are all the same", but in respect of their intentions for education this is patently not true, even though the politicians are not always as clear (or honest) about their intentions as they should be. For education, there will be two alternatives between which we will have to make a choice.

The first alternative is the acceleration of the fragmentation of the schools system, fuelled by the belief that competition between schools and the operation of "market forces" is the way to "drive up standards". The number of free schools would continue to grow, with "academisation' imposed on the majority of schools that refuse to consider the move. This would be a world where all schools came under the control of the secretary of state and his or her team of commissioners (or should we say "commissars"?), aided and abetted by unaccountable and unelected "chains". And then there’s the danger of the likely return of grammar schools and universal selection if Tory candidates – scared stiff of losing – persuade their leader to adopt Ukip's policy.

The other alternative is the creation of a framework that embraces all schools in the area of the community they serve. This would be a world in which schools operated on the basis of the kind of cooperation and partnership that made the London Challenge an outstanding success; they would enjoy a level of professional autonomy compatible with public accountability and fair admissions.

In addition to these two alternatives, there are likely to be significant differences on such issues as CPD, pay and conditions, teacher recruitment and the pupil places crisis.  

Whether Labour or the Conservatives secure a majority, or some kind of coalition is fashioned, it is likely that we will be confronted by a choice. So what should be done by those involved in or concerned about education?

How we vote is likely to derive from a mix of considerations, and doubtless we will have to contend with even more horror stories, false claims and appeals to prejudice than usual, so desperate are some politicians to win the election. Thanks to some parts of the media and some politicians, immigration and relations with Europe may be thought to be of prime importance in the election, and to many the future of the NHS as well.

But although these are very important issues – together with the state of the economy and such matters as social care and childcare, housing, and the abuse of children and young people – discussion of most of them invariably turns to the role of education. This is because, unlike most of those issues, education is fundamental and lasting in its consequences. It lays the foundations for skills, shapes attitudes and ambitions, stimulates creativity, develops relationships, promotes citizenship and raises awareness of rights and responsibilities. In short, it shapes our society and affects the health of our economy.

This is why what is happening to our schools, colleges and universities should be of as much interest and concern to voters as any issues that may capture headlines or our television screens. Whichever way we decide to vote, bringing that message home is important to all the individuals and groups involved in education.

One would hope that all this would lead to more attention being given to such material as the manifestos produced by the NUT and the ATL, and to the declaration from the Reclaiming Education Alliance that is dealt with in What's Next for Education? (due to be published by my New Visions for Education Group and explored at our National Forum on 23 March).

When I had the privilege of organising the 1963 Campaign for Education, described by prime minister Harold MacMillan as "the greatest collective effort for educational advance this country has ever seen", our main aim at the time was to ensure that education became a major issue in the 1964 general election.

This year I suggest there is still a need to make education a key issue. But whereas in 1963 we were out to secure greater investment in education, this year there is an even more pressing need: to save our education system from fragmentation and chaos. We must ensure the future existence of an education system that provides quality education and opportunity for all our children and young people, and caters for the growing needs of adults – and our senior citizens. We must not fail them.

To register for the New Visions for Education Group National Forum, click here.


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