ARCHIVED on 10 November 2015

This chapter calls for a National Education Service funded, but not controlled, by the state and run by teachers, working collegially in comprehensive schools and academies, who are trusted to teach each and every one of their pupils to the best of their professional ability and who endeavour to identify and respond to the educational needs of those whom they teach in accord with the collegial policies of their institutions and ideals of social justice.

Labour has yet to develop a narrative as to how to run a state-funded education system that is democratically accountable and provides a level playing field for all children.

Chris Lines ex-president NASUWT


Ever since the Education Reform Act of 1988, governments of both left and right have steadily increased the pressure on schools, teachers and children. The Conservative Party, the Labour Party, and now the Coalition, top industrialists, the media and parents have all been responsible for demanding more and more from schools and, in consequence, putting enormous pressure on the nation’s children. This is wrong. Yes, Labour bears some of the responsibility for this over recent years, but we must now recognise that we were wrong.

Labour secretaries of state for Education, excited by Tony Blair’s ‘education, education, education’, came to believe that tight demands on what should be taught (and sometimes how), regular external testing, targets for exam results, rigorous inspections, parental choice based on league tables, performance related pay, and constant issue of micro-managerial edicts would raise the standards of low-achievement schools and improve social mobility while meeting the demands of industrialists for a better educated work-force. It was utterly misguided. It failed to recognise the truth of the case put by Basil Bernstein in the 1970s that "education cannot compensate for society".

In a dysfunctional economy, where there is not only massive inequality but where the rich are making themselves richer and the poor poorer, where there is widespread unemployment due to a lack of jobs, where family life can be disrupted by uncongenial working hours, obsessive computer games and a lack of parental involvement in children’s development, and where the right wing press does little to focus on these issues, it is in vain, unjust and perhaps downright wicked for politicians to bleat about the need to raise students’ aspirations and to clobber headteachers where the schools do not reach arbitrary targets of pupil success.

Children should not be forced into the academic strait-jackets that tell them they are failures if they do not achieve test and examination results that government ministers ‘expect’. Children should not be treated as trainees for factory and office work. Children should not see university entrance as an essential aspiration. Childhood is the precious time for development in the many aspects of human life which are much wider than any examination can assess. Childhood should be a time of happiness as the world unfolds, and unfolds differently, for every child in exploring their environment, building social relationships, experiencing the range of human emotions, and acquiring knowledge and skills. Parents know this in their hearts, but often ignore it in their actions when they are blinded by the competitive drives fostered by government, industry and the media.

Schools are one of the places that this unfolding happens. Teachers often witness it happening and indeed can be prime agents in the process. But they are trammelled by the rigid demands of an educational system which prevents them from responding effectively to the differing needs of the children they teach. Unlike most ministers and civil servants, teachers through their training and professional experience have the understanding and skills to give children what they need. They must be allowed to do so. Teachers deserve our trust. They need our trust in order to teach effectively.

Labour needs to recognise what the Tories are up to. They are hell-bent on privatising every one of the social functions that Labour believes are best managed by the state: health, policing, social work, care of the elderly – and education.

It is happening by stealth. By turning (sometimes forcing) schools into academies with new governing bodies they are taking away from schools the many services that local authorities provided in order to open the door to commercial organisations who can make a profit by selling them the support that from time to time is needed. Peter Wilby, a long serving education journalist, put it this way in the Guardian on 9 April 2012:

"‘Independent’ academies increase the opportunities for commercial involvement in state-funded education. Many schools will use their extra cash to pay private companies to run anything from back-office management to teaching and learning programmes. Ministerial assurances that companies cannot run state-funded schools for profit are mere window-dressing. There is nothing to stop academy trustees from contracting out the operations, in whole or in part, to profit-making firms.”

Unfortunately, Michael Gove, secretary of state in the Coalition government, is brilliant at this window-dressing. Hear what he said in June 2011 in Birmingham:

“My moral purpose in Government is to break the lock which prevents children from our poorest families making it into our best universities and walking into the best jobs. … Because the scandal which haunts my conscience is the plight of those students from the poorest backgrounds, in the poorest neighbourhoods, in our poorest performing schools who need us to act if their right to a decent future is to be guaranteed.”

And then read what Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said in April 2012 at her association’s annual conference.

“This coalition government's attacks on poor children are a blight upon our conception of ourselves as a civilised society. …

  • Consider the fact that this coalition government has cut grant funding to Sure Start Centres by about 22%. 124 centres have closed since it was elected, and the quality of service provision in many others has reduced.
  • Consider the fact that this coalition government abolished the education maintenance allowance, slashing support for vulnerable students who cannot afford to attend further education college. And consider that, as a result, the government is paying over a million 16 – 24 year olds to stay at home and rot, rather than learn and develop their skills. Destroying hope and endeavour where it should be strongest. And the results of this destruction will be with us as a society for generations. I tell you, we will pay for the coalition government's shameful neglect of young people.

  • Consider that since this coalition government was elected the number of children eligible and claiming free school meals has risen by 110,000 but, at the same time, the ring-fenced funding for school meals has been removed.

  • Consider that this coalition government's drastic cuts in local authority grant funding has forced over one fifth of councils in England to axe the supply of library books to primary and secondary schools and threatened the future of 600 public libraries.

  • Consider that another result of the slashing of local authority budgets is that, in summer 2011, 29 out of 55 local authority areas analysed, said they were reducing spending in Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services. In Lewisham, to give one example, but only one of many, CAMHS are facing cuts of £500,000 this year
  • Consider that as a result of this coalition government's tax reforms, two million low- to middle-income families on working tax credit will lose financially.

  • Consider that as a result of this coalition government's education reforms, 18% pupils with non-statemented special educational needs will lose out because of the disappearance of School and School Action Plus.

  • And consider that public spending on education will fall by 13% in real terms by 2014-15.

And then tell us that we are all in it together.

This is the coalition government's dirty little secret. This is what they have done, to make the lives of poor children, already disadvantaged and demeaned through their poverty, harder. So it makes sense for them to divert attention away from their destructive policies. It makes sense to unleash a torrent of criticism at schools and school leaders and staff who work, every day, not with political rhetoric but with pupils' lives, lives which they strive desperately, and with diminishing state support, to improve.”

Deep down most Tories believe that most people who are poor are idle and haven’t worked hard enough at becoming richer. They only deserve state benefit in order to prevent civil disorder.

Where Michael Gove stands on this is not clear. Like Keith Joseph in the 1970s he has a concern for the poor and wants a good education for everybody. But he is committed to the belief that money drives excellence and so is sure that fee-paying schools are better than state-funded schools and that performance-related-pay for teachers will lead them to raise their game. Likewise he believes that private companies will give better service to schools than local authorities. David Bell, who was permanent secretary at the Department of Education until the end of 2011, told the New Statesman deputy editor, Mehddi Hasan:

“that he, like the Education Secretary, saw ‘no principled objection’ to profit-making companies taking over state schools and predicted that they would ‘probably’ do so eventually.”

At 9.30 pm on 13 May 2015 an article for the next day’s Observer was posted on the Guardian website by the policy editor Daniel Boffey: “Schools ‘face talent drain’ as morale of teachers dives”. Within 24 hours it had attracted 732 comments, mainly giving explanations of why this was. The following comment was supported by 3390 ‘recommend’s:

“The Tories despise everything about the public sector. The idea of a system where people work together for a common good without being driven by profit and greed is against their ideological being. I am not surprised that they spend most of their time attacking teachers, NHS staff and civil servants.”

A couple of weeks earlier Zoe Williams had an article in the Guardian entitled “Markets can’t magic up good teachers. Nor can bonuses”. (3 May 2012) This letter was published next day, from a retired teacher, Caryl Hughes of Stockport, who spoke for many.

“Thank you Zoe Williams for seeing that not everything is driven by money. I am now a retired teacher, but I loved teaching. I was paid a reasonable salary, and my conditions of service and pension provision were good. However, they were not what motivated my teaching. They are nothing compared to the reward of seeing the light go on in a child’s face as they suddenly ‘get it’. I know of no teacher that entered teaching and stayed in the profession simply because of the money. If you don’t love teaching, it is simply not tenable as a career. It is a sad reflection on the mindset of our ministers if they believe that the only thing that drives people is money – but then, of course, that is what drives them.”

What is certain about Michael Gove is that for all the talk of academies being free “of local authority control” (which all schools have been since the Education Reform Act of 1988 introduced LMS) they are all centrally accountable to him as the secretary of state. Peter Wilby has expressed a widespread concern:

“The secretary of state has the powers of an elected dictator. … The trustees of an academy have to sign a contract with the secretary of state who, for all practical purposes, is the sole source of funding. He or she, after giving notice, can turn off the tap and close the school at any time. The public, including parents, have no rights to lodge objections, still less to have then seriously considered. Nor is there any statute law concerning academies that gives anyone a basis to challenge an education secretary’s decisions.” (Guardian 31 January 2012)

Labour needs to stand firm against what Gove is doing. Labour should assert loud and clear that education should not be a source of profit for investors. But neither should it be a fiefdom for here-today-and-gone-tomorrow ministers, nor aim to provide cannon fodder for satanic mills of business, nor be a selection tool for employers and universities, nor feed the egos of obsessive inspectors or bullying heads, and it should not benefit children with ambitious parents at the expense of others.

Education should be about young people living, and learning to live, worthwhile lives. It should be first, the experience and nurture of personal and social development towards worthwhile living ; second, the acquisition, creation, development, transmission, conservation, discovery and renewal of worthwhile culture; and third, the skills of worthwhile survival in the challenging times of a globally warming, fuel depleted, economically chaotic, future world.

And who should decide what is worthwhile? Teachers – and that is for what we must hope they are educated in universities. Teachers, working together collegially in schools, discussing education with local communities, walking tall in society, knowing the educational needs of their pupils, should decide what happens in schools.

The educational function of government should be to fund schools from taxation, which is a proper use of public money: government should not bedevil our children with self-seeking party dogma.

Trust the teachers, they know best.

This is why the Labour Party, when returned to office, must recast our national education.

It must be firmly based on comprehensive and community-based schools.

Whereas sometimes there is a smooth transition from the policies of one administration to the next, when Labour returns to government it will be necessary to make substantial changes in Education policy to counter the current centralising, privatising and elitist policies of the Coalition government.

This paper argues that it will be necessary and appropriate to put classroom decision-making firmly in the hands of those who know best what those in the classroom need – ie educational power must be with teachers.

But this must not be like the mid-twentieth century schools where many teachers acted almost autonomously, teaching with classroom doors firmly shut and succeeding or struggling without any help from other teachers. Teachers must work collegially, recognising strengths and weaknesses in each other and learning from the one and giving support to the other. School decision-making must be based on the collegial views of teachers within the school led by the head as education leader of the school with the local community playing a significant role.This will be particularly important in those communities where poverty and unemployment are endemic. Schools need to be embedded in their local communities, where, as the phrase goes, teachers need to walk tall.

Beyond these matters it will be necessary to begin to relate education policy to the changing world in which our children will live: one beset by global warming, peak oil and the likelihood of economic retrenchment. This will require vocational education to be of greater significance than academic education with teachers playing a major role in the development of community life.

From the perspective set out here it is suggested that the next Labour government should create a National Education Service embracing the state provision for the education of all young people up to the age of their leaving secondary education.

Fundamentally it must transfer power from the Department of Education to the schools and academies, with trust vested in teachers and bottom-up accountability in place of the current top-down system. It is a way of creating the ‘education system that is democratically accountable and provides a level playing field for all children’ that the opening quotation calls for.