In researching my recent book, Life Lessons: the case for a National Education Service, I was genuinely surprised to discover the degree of consensus that exists regarding the key problems facing English education.
From left to right, it is broadly accepted that early-years provision is unacceptably patchy and expensive, that our primary and secondary-age children are being too stringently tested while arts, music and drama provision is in decline.
Everyone recognises that teachers are wilting under a heavy workload, and that teacher supply and retention are in near crisis, while a number of cross-party parliamentary inquiries have expressed concern at the rapid fragmentation of our system.
To this list, we must add a further education system that is now “in tatters”, according to cross-bench peer Baroness Wolf, while higher education is now under heavy attack for the bloated salaries of management and unacceptable levels of debt for young people.
If I weren’t too habitually steeped in reserved English ways, I might ask: where’s the uproar? Where are the headteachers, teachers or, indeed, young people taking to the streets (as students frequently do in Chile, apparently) demanding radical change?
Perhaps we can put it down to post-Brexit quiescence, but several factors are putting a block on radical reform. The first is the small matter of our besieged Tory government, with a fluent and emollient education secretary in a state of elegant evasion, if not outright denial, about some of the most pressing problems.
The second is the strong belief expressed by many educational leaders that English education is in a much better state than critics claim and indeed that it is generally much improved post-Coalition.
Leora Cruddas, director of Fasna (Freedom and Autonomy for Schools National Association), has pointed to the fact that, according to Ofsted, most schools are “good” or “outstanding”. Meanwhile, Matthew Hood, the appealingly dynamic director of the Institute of Teaching, believes that the high-quality conversations around research and evidence-based practice going on among teachers lead only to further improvement down the line.
Hood has a point. The most recent conference, put on by ResearchEd, attracted over a thousand teachers, eager to debate the latest findings about teaching and learning.
And I understand the more general need to stay upbeat. There are always innovations and examples of good practice in our schools, emanating from committed headteachers and teachers. The problem is that the system, not those required to work within it, is in a fragmented mess.
This leads me neatly onto a further element blocking reform: a sense of deep exhaustion within the profession at the prospect of yet more centrally directed change.
It is easy to understand the human fatigue at play but to give up any hope of radical reform on this basis is deeply dangerous. Not only does it concede defeat to a coalition government that pushed through the biggest changes in English education for generations, and with minimal consultation, but it is damaging to the process of democratic politics itself.
Local government has been wilfully dismantled over the past 20 years, with huge implications for our nurseries, schools and colleges. If we stop believing that governments can engineer real change then we might as well stop believing in democracy.
Talking to teachers, particularly younger ones, hard pressed as they are, many are crying out for a fresh vision for education. They are also looking for figures and movements to develop and articulate the bolder ideas that they believe in. This is partly why I wrote Life Lessons. Criticism is an essential element of political free speech but it is as important, if harder, to craft feasible, popular alternatives.
Let’s not make the mistake of the Michael Gove and, to an extent, New Labour eras, which treated the ideas and educators of previous generations with contempt born of ignorance, while at the same time stealing their best ideas (high-quality, non-selective education, anyone?). Let’s try to break down the polarisation and diminish the sniping between generations and tribes as we find a fresh way forward.
Must do better
For me, the idea of a National Education Service provides an interesting and positive framework for such conversations.
As my fellow campaigner, Fiona Millar, argues in her recent book, The Best for My Child: did the schools market deliver?, it is now clear that the values of competition and choice have not produced a stable and improving system.
As with all markets, it is the well-connected, often metropolitan, figures and projects that thrive, while outlying or disadvantaged areas often languish or are forgotten. For every interesting new edu-enterprise or highly praised academy chain, there’s a collapsing multi-academy trust, a free school disrupting good local provision or a headteacher who just can’t cut it in a competitive landscape.
After decades of reform, we can’t even claim that England is a world leader on either the standards or equity front.
The 2016 Programme for International Assessment (Pisa) tables declare us still only a middling performer, while, after years of windy rhetoric about improving social mobility, the latest clutch of reports, from the Educational Policy Institute to the Fair Education Alliance, confirm the “attainment gap” to be depressingly static. We can’t even definitively say that overall standards have risen over the past few decades.
We could surely do better. For a start, we could return decisions about school place planning and admissions to local authorities, helping to create more balanced and cohesive local schools and broadening governance once again to embrace parents, community representatives, civic groups and local businesses.
A properly run National Education Service could also solve the problem of teacher shortages at a stroke by getting qualified teachers to the areas and schools that need them most.
More importantly, we could start to redefine the concept of education along much broader and more enlivening lines, including across the life course. Everyone accepts that high-quality early years education is vital.
But given that most of us will live well past 80 (if we can get our hearts in better working order, that is), our obsession with the school years, particularly the period from 11-16, just doesn’t make sense. We know from the popularity of massive open online courses, the Open University and the University of the Third Age about the hunger among adults of all ages for knowledge, either for its own sake or to “upskill”, to use that ugly modern term.
But like so much of today’s education, poorer adults are too often priced out of this market, following a 35 per cent drop in the adult skills budget, and the withering away of much infrastructure around adult education.
And while heads are preoccupied with current funding pressures, we have lost the courage to make the case for spending far more on education than we do already.
One of the most positive things about the New Labour years was the investment put into schools (even if public-private partnership deals benefited the latter at the expense of the former), particularly in poorer areas.
I often walk past the Lord Norman Foster-designed Capital City Academy in Brent, the borough in which I live. It is a stunning structure, a testament to one of the foundational stones of a National Education Service: our disadvantaged children deserve the best.
The need for much greater investment was eloquently made in 2016 by Dame Sally Coates, director of academies south at United Learning. Asked to look into prison education, under the coalition, she found that lack of resources, particularly in special needs, mental health and alternative provision, came with a heavy price tag.
As Coates argued, given that it costs £30,000 a year to incarcerate one individual (the annual fee of a high-end private school, incidentally), why not plough more of the state’s resources into improved educational provision instead?
For those who are interested, my book has plenty more ideas in this vein. But how to bring about change in the fragmented and frequently bad-tempered schools landscape?
Routes to reform
I’d like to suggest three distinct but complementary routes to real reform, all of them to be conducted in a courteous manner and at a respectful pace. First, given that most real politics begin outside Parliament (which must eventually take note of movements for change), there is no better time to build coalitions for reform on a number of fronts.
From the Association of School and College Leaders, with its recent report on cuts to arts provision, to the extraordinary claims by Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman that poorer pupils have a “hollowed out and flimsy understanding” (due to excessive teaching to the test), there is growing pressure for a more broad and stretching education and fewer pressurising exams. There are similar coalitions now building that advocate proper mental health support in schools, genuine careers guidance, improved vocational provision and reform of school accountability.
Second, progressive politicians need to play a key part in shaping a big-picture alternative to the years of fragmentation and frozen budgets. Talking recently to a young academy teacher of radical politics, I was struck by her impatience at the absence of a fresh vision from the left: “We have a critique of everything but what are we going to replace it with?”
One of the few advantages of being in opposition is that you don’t have to tour TV studios pretending support for a set of policies about which you are clearly uneasy.
Shadow ministers may not have civil service expertise to draw on but they do have the freedom to initiate discussions with everyone from the trades’ unions to key figures in the educational establishment, to pool the best ideas and to reformulate policy afresh.
Given current problems, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are more or less pushing at an open door when it comes to arguing for a broader curriculum, less punishing accountability measures, more CPD, the importance of early-years provision and so on.
But I’d like to see even greater boldness from progressive parties, and a fresh and exciting case made for education as a democratically accountable, responsive public service, capable of innovation but working in partnership with parents, students and communities. Expect some statement on the “democratic legitimacy” issue from Angela Rayner at this week’s party conference.
It is certainly time, as Comprehensive Future argues, for the final phasing out of selection and the implementation of fairer admissions. Last week, Layla Moran, education spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, described selection as a form of “state-sponsored segregation” and called for a review of the 11-plus exam.
Ending selection could prove a popular position, given that many academy and free school leaders are firmly committed to excellent non-selective education, even if there is less agreement about what constitutes such ‘excellence’. For now, that is a second order issue.
Finally, as I argue in the closing section of my book, we need to have a much more honest national conversation about the realities of our system and what changes we want to see over the next 20 or 30 years.
How can we ensure that schools are genuinely high quality without using exam results as the sole driver of accountability? How can we better educate and reward our teachers, to keep them in education for life? How might artificial intelligence help to engage and excite the interest of many more young people, as described by Alex Beard in his stimulating book Natural Born Learners?
And perhaps most important of all: how, over the next few decades, can we dissolve the historic barriers between private and state education, in order to build a common school system used by all families?
In England, we are too often encouraged to scrutinise elements of our system separately, as if each sector is unrelated to each other. This stops us realising the degree to which the continued existence of selective and private schools affect the education of the near 90 per cent who do not use them. Again, the political mood music is changing, with Labour calling for the imposition of VAT on school fees and the Liberal Democrats arguing for an end to charitable status for private schools.
Our aim should be more ambitious still. Look at those countries that have successfully reworked their education system, often in dramatic fashion: such reform was usually preceded by years of honest reflection and debate. What’s stopping us from imagining, and discussing, a common system – a genuinely “national” education service?
Melissa Benn is a founder of the Local Schools Network and chair of Comprehensive Future. Her book, Life Lessons: the case for a National Education Service, is out now from Verso