This spring's general election coincides with the 70th anniversary of the 1945 election that brought Clement Attlee's Labour government to power. Despite similarities, such as a huge national debt, the contrasts between then and now are great. Today, there is no sign of the spirit of '45 or the determination of a nation to build a better and fairer society.
Yet we can still learn something from 1945. Every civilised society rightly sees education as a handmaid of social justice. Most people agree still, just as they did in the wake of Rab Butler's 1944 Education Act, that education is very important and there must be some public system to ensure that all children, whatever part of the country or circumstance in which they live, have the chance to become fulfilled adults.
We have made enormous progress since 1945. Then, a flotilla of new schools was to be built "fit for the children of returning heroes"; now, many of those school buildings, after years of neglect, have been rebuilt as part of Building Schools for the Future. Then, less than 3 per cent of the population attended university; now, more than 45 per cent attend. Then, more than 85 per cent of young people left school with no nationally recognised exam success; now, less than 10 per cent do. Then, the proportion gaining the school certificate was less than 10 per cent; now, more than 50 per cent of the cohort gain at least five higher grades at GCSE including English and maths - the equivalent of the old School Certificate. Then, there was a mere handful of state-funded nurseries; now, there is universal preschool provision, which we know to be the essential foundation for later success in life, especially for children from families that face challenges, or from no family at all.
We know, too, that despite such progress more needs to be done. There is too narrow a focus on school outcomes, with a neglect of the vocational as well as the wider development of interests and attitudes essential for a contributing and personally fulfilling life. Moreover, within those narrowly drawn school outcomes, too many pupils are left so far behind their high-achieving peers that they reach adulthood without the basic skills to lead successful lives. New worries accumulate, mostly the consequences of national policies, including:
- State-funded provision for early years that is poorly staffed, vulnerable to cuts and dogged by a confused funding method.
- A shortage of suitably qualified teachers in parts of the country after proper planning of their numbers was abandoned.
- Difficulty in recruiting suitable school leaders.
- A shortage of primary school places and the bizarre sight in some areas of children being taxied miles for want of any place in schools closer to their homes, the cost of which results in cuts to other local services.
- An admissions code and set of individual school practices and governance arrangements that enable some schools to choose parents, rather than parents choosing schools.
- The almost complete disappearance of the youth service, without which too many vulnerable teenagers find it difficult to navigate the rapids of adolescence.
- Cutbacks in post-16 funding and support, and the gradual undermining of successful sixth-form colleges.
- High student fees that deter some, especially those from poorer backgrounds, from entering higher education.
- A teaching profession too often fearful because of a deeply flawed accountability system, particularly in school inspection, and too often enervated by inappropriate meddling from ministers in what is taught and how it is taught.
- The disintegration of a coherent, independent advice and guidance service for school-aged children.
- The erosion of scarce special educational needs support services, without which children who face barriers to their learning will have fewer chances in life.
- A breakdown in the balance of duties and responsibilities between national government, local government and schools, leading to fragmentation and inequity.
Some of these concerns are the result of cuts in services that will take time to repair, although we cannot help recalling that, in 1945, a far deeper economic crisis didn't deter our ancestors from creating and investing in universal health and education services. Three themes seem especially important. One is that we must find ways of trusting school staff much more than at present; unless we do, the damaging effects on recruitment and retention will continue. Proposals to reform inspection and exams, to establish a national teaching college and to improve teacher recruitment and professional development are pressing priorities if we wish to reflect nationally the levels of trust felt by most parents in what teachers do to raise standards.
The second priority for any government serious about change for the better, rather than for its own sake, is to sort out the fragmentation of school and local governance. The secretary of state's wings need to be clipped. There is too much micromanagement, too much national accountability and too little of the "bright light of ordinariness" - the insights of ordinary people that were the lasting strength of local government.
A third priority needs to be the school admissions system, where the recently revised code fails to address endemic weaknesses leading to injustice for parents and their children. That and school-place planning are clearly roles to be initiated and carried out by local government.
Other priorities may have to wait for better economic circumstances. It is impossible to ignore the shortage of money that will form the context for the next government's policies. Cuts are already affecting educational provision and, because most people wrongly think school budgets have been protected in real terms, these cuts are largely unacknowledged. A statutory panel involving the National Governors Association, the Local Government Association and others should meet annually to consider the impact of spending decisions, as happened at the time of the last deep cuts in expenditure in the 1970s and '80s.
Above all, however, a new government should engage in debate with partners in a quest to renew and reinforce the enthusiasm, energy and hope that has characterised our education system in the past and still does in the best of its provisions. Without such enthusiasm, the future will be bleak for many of our learners; with it, there is no limit to what we may achieve.
This is an edited version of the foreword from a book published by the New Visions for Education Group, What's Next for Education?, which is distributed by Central Books and priced at pound;10. ISBN 978-0-9549972-1-2. Sir Tim Brighouse, former schools commissioner for London, is chair of the New Visions for Education Group