The future of the left since 1884

Comprehensive reform

It is over 50 years since Tony Crosland issued the Department of Education and Science circular 10/65 which ‘requested’ that local authorities ‘go comprehensive’. Since then, the school leaving age, funding, curriculum, qualifications, management and governance have constantly changed. Yet,...


It is over 50 years since Tony Crosland issued the Department of Education and Science circular 10/65 which ‘requested’ that local authorities ‘go comprehensive’. Since then, the school leaving age, funding, curriculum, qualifications, management and governance have constantly changed. Yet, at a fundamental level the school system remains largely the same as it was in the 1960s: children go to primary school at the age of five, secondary school at the age of 11, take exams at 16, and leave at the age of 16 or 18.

British society is now at a crossroads after the EU referendum, which highlighted stark inequalities by geography, age and income. People with few or no qualifications overwhelmingly vote to leave the EU, feeling that they had nothing to lose in an economy that did not benefit them. Even before Brexit, doing more of the same was not the answer to major questions of how to solve the British economy’s productivity problem, reduce social inequality and the economic decline of towns across the country. As Jim Knight has recently written for Fabian Review, Britain needs a different school system to enable young people to adapt to the digital age.

The recent Tory debacle on forcing all schools to become academies is reflective of an arid Westminster discourse. Labour hasn’t been much better. First under Brown, then Miliband and then Corbyn, Labour has showed almost no interest in education, the engine of opportunity, equality and life chances. MPs of all parties are focused on a narrow agenda of compliance, structures and Ofsted inspections: no one is asking whether our school system is equipping future generations of young people for life in an increasingly globalised and complex world. A 21st century education system could be organised in a radically different way. To achieve it, Labour needs to regain the intellectual and political leadership on education, as Harold Wilson did in 1964 and Tony Blair in 1997.

From Wilson to Blair: Labour’s education reforms

In 1964, education was central to Labour’s modernising platform. This was shaped by Tony Crosland’s thinking in The Future of Socialism, which argued that “‘as an investment, education yields a generous return: we badly need more of it’”.

Wilson saw ‘the white heat of technology’ as the agent of social change: scientific and technological innovation combined with the abolition of the 11 plus, the creation of comprehensive schools and the opening up of higher education to many more young people would create a fairer and more productive society and economy. His government implemented the Robbins report, establishing seven new universities, including Warwick, York and Lancaster; founded 27 polytechnics and created the Open University. In his masterly biography, Ben Pimlott argued that Wilson changed higher education from “a rare privilege available only to the wealthy and a few exceptional others to a reasonable aspiration for any bright and industrious teenager”.

If Wilson and Crosland were alive today, they would probably be impressed and delighted by the transformation in the numbers of young people going to university; depressed by the persistence of structural unemployment and economic decline in towns such as Crosland’s Grimsby constituency; and appalled by the deepening social inequalities in British society. In his recent book, Social Class in the 21st Century, Mike Savage concluded that educational outcomes and life chances for children and young people are increasingly determined by social class background and that social mobility is, at best, flat.

For the New Labour government elected in 1997, education was central to its mission. Raising school standards and expanding opportunities for post compulsory education and training were a top priority in the 1997, 2001 and 2005 Labour manifestos. Investment, growth and reform characterised Labour’s approach to education: per pupil expenditure increased very significantly given the flat figures in the 1990s, with more money directed to disadvantaged pupils and schools in deprived neighbourhoods; failing schools were turned round through creating city academies, with major successes in London in particular. John Hills and his team at the London School of Economics concluded in their review of Labour’s record that efforts to tackle educational inequalities from 1997 to 2010 were “extensive, expensive and sustained”. Yet while inequalities in educational outcomes were lower than they would have been without the Labour governments, the socio-economic attainment gap is still very large. Although expenditure on childcare and nursery education increased substantially through Sure Start, investment in early years still lags well behind other EU countries: provision is better, but of high cost, variable quality and patchy availability. Sure Start funding was then cut back very significantly by the coalition government; children’s centres did not become a fundamental part of the welfare state like schools and hospitals.

Fit for purpose? Why further reform is needed

Although there now are more good and outstanding state schools than ever before, there are persistent structural weaknesses in our education system. The performance of schools and FE colleges in England and Wales simply isn’t good enough. In 2014 only 53 per cent of our young people achieved 5 GCSEs A to C grades with English and maths. The PISA league tables show that 15 year olds in the OECD perform averagely in reading and maths, and at a slightly higher level in science.

The education select committee report Underachievement in Education by White Working Class Children describes how working class boys and girls perform significantly less well at school than their middle class peers. Their below average educational performance has adversely impacted upon regional economic growth, rising inequality and alienation from civic and political life. Poor educational achievement is particularly endemic in coastal resorts, mining communities, and towns and cities that were once dominated by heavy industry and have been experiencing painful economic decline for decades. The Ofsted chief inspector, Michael Wilshaw, in his most recent annual report, highlighted the poor performance of schools in the north west of England as a major barrier to increasing economic performance in the ‘northern powerhouse’.

In order to begin the process of reform, the left has to have the courage to accept that significant investment in schools and post-16 education and training during the Labour’s years in office did little to improve our international competitiveness, reduce long-term youth unemployment or reduce social and economic inequalities.

The UK economy suffers from poor productivity, skill shortages and low pay. UK employers consistently complain about difficulties in recruiting employees with the right technical and ‘soft’ skills, and increasingly find it easier to send offshore technical roles or to recruit migrant labour. The demand for higher level technical skills is increasing due to business growth and employee retirement. The Royal Academy of Engineering forecasts that the UK economy will require 830,000 more engineers by 2020. The IPPR estimate there will be around 3.6 million new and replacement technician and associate professional level roles by 2020, yet our education and training system is not designed to address these requirements.

We do not do education and training for 14 to 19 year olds well in this country, except for academic high fliers. The outcomes for further education students are not good, either for them, employers or society. Richard Brooks details in the Fabian pamphlet Out of Sight how one in three young people in England reach the age of 19 without English and maths qualifications at GCSE grade C, which is the standard requirement for entry into level 3 qualifications such as A levels and advanced apprenticeships. Too many young people drift through further education taking several different vocational courses with poor employment outcomes. These young people are not deprived, socially excluded or hard to help: they simply have poor literacy and numeracy and few qualifications.

Over the last 40 years, there have been numerous debates about the relative advantages and disadvantages of 11 to 18 schools compared with 11 to 16 schools; school sixth forms, free standing sixth form colleges (usually specialising in A levels) and further education colleges; the role of employers in preparing young people for the world of work; and numerous initiatives to provide ‘parity of esteem’ for vocational qualifications.

These questions were first asked by another Labour prime minister, Jim Callaghan, in a speech at Ruskin College, Oxford in 1976. Callaghan’s speech aimed to start a ‘great debate’ on the school curriculum: what should be taught, how and who should decide, with the prime minister advocating a core curriculum with universal standards; greater importance attached to reading, writing and arithmetic; closer involvement of parents and industry with schools; and a greater focus on teaching technology. These questions are still relevant today: all educationalists, civil servants and politicians have been doing is going round in circles, frequently revisiting these policy issues, introducing different interventions but without significant improvements in outcomes. Young people, employers and wider society have been the losers.

Co-ordinating, and more importantly, holding to account the myriad of agencies responsible for funding, delivering and inspecting 16 to 19 education and training has proved exceptionally difficult. The Manpower Services Commission, Training and Enterprise Councils, Further Education Funding Councils, Learning and Skills Councils, Sector Skills Councils, Regional Development Agencies have all come and gone. Unlike at the ages of 11 and 16, no one institution or leader is held to account for young people’s qualifications and progression into employment or higher education at 19. Until this changes there will be no significant improvement in outcomes for young people.

Our education ‘system’ has failed too many young people under both Conservative and Labour governments. The problem is not a shortage of funding or of good intentions. Since 2014 all young people have to stay in education or training until they are 18. National funding is available for full time study for all young people up to the age of 19. It is how this money is spent that is crucial.

We need a different education system. Our economy and society are changing very radically and the pace of change will only increase: we need a school system which is designed to meet the needs of the 21st century not one designed for the post 1945 era.

Comprehensive reform: a new schools agenda for the 2020s

Labour needs to think big – it should consider a fundamental change our school system by creating a new three tiered model.

Each neighbourhood would have a children’s centre for children aged 0 to 5 and their parents and carers: early intervention is fundamental to reducing inequalities in education and life chances more broadly. The children’s centre would provide play, childcare, nursery education, health advice and family support: most services would be free but childcare for working parents would be subsidised. The centres would offer universal provision for all families, but with a specific focus to ensure that those families with additional needs – whether due to disability, language or low income – felt welcome and confident to use the services provided. Intensive support would be given to children to ensure that every child met the development goals in the early years foundation stage. The children’s centre would provide nursery education for 2, 3 and 4 year olds and the first year or two of compulsory schooling: on the continent children do not start formal school until they are six and they follow an early years play based curriculum.

Children would then attend a junior school from the ages of 6 to 13, to give children a broad education in all-ability schools. Older pupils would have different teachers for maths, English, languages and science, to provide specialist teaching in critical subjects from an earlier age.  At 13 young people would choose to go to a 14 to 19 college, which would offer young people a core curriculum alongside opportunities to specialise and develop their skills, talents and knowledge in subjects and careers that interest them, in a supportive environment.

All colleges would teach a core curriculum of English, Maths, science, technology, citizenship, creative arts and sport but they would have a specialist focus – such as engineering, health sciences, technology, performing and visual arts, environmental science or the humanities – tailored to the requirements of regional industries and employers. How teaching and learning is delivered would need to fundamentally change: post-14 schooling should be much more research-based, collaborative, knowledge-making and self-directed; it should be relating to real world challenges and collaborating with those outside education.

At the age of 13 young people would be able to be much more involved in deciding where and what they wanted to study than at the age of ten. A new network of 14 to 19 colleges would be much easier for employers, particularly small and micro businesses to engage with on a consistent basis, providing work experience, mentoring, projects and careers advice.  There would be risks, not least that colleges specialising in engineering, technology and construction would be full of boys: but politicians, policy makers, school and college leaders and employers cannot shy away from the gender segregation in the labour market any longer. Society needs more female engineers and male primary school teachers.

This three-tiered model – children’s centres/nursery schools for children from 0 to five; junior schools for children aged 6 to 13; and colleges for young people aged 14 to 19 – would be a fundamental change to our school and college system and would of course meet with strong resistance. The teaching profession and their unions are unlikely to be enthusiasts and will argue that young people should not narrow their options by specialising so early in life. But it is surely better for all young people to reach 18 with the skills and qualifications to go to university or take up an advanced apprenticeship, even if they will have to retrain for roles that have yet to be created later in life. It is far better to be able to adapt to change from a position of career success than from insecure, low paid, low skilled work.

Adapting buildings would be difficult and require significant investment which the Treasury will be very reluctant to provide. However, the Treasury needs to be forced to face up to the fact that doing more of the same is not the answer to the UK economy’s fundamental weaknesses of low productivity and skill shortages, and that freedom of movement will not be a solution to recruitment problems for much longer after Brexit. With the economic uncertainty caused by the referendum result, now is the time for bold thinking.

Labour MPs, city mayors and council leaders are best placed to challenge Treasury thinking. Together with major employers, small business leaders, head teachers, college principals and university vice chancellors, they need to ask searching questions about how their local education system should be changed. Now budgets for skills are being devolved to elected mayors in new combined authorities, further education will be reviewed in their cities.  Fundamentally redesigning the structure of our schools and colleges will provide an opportunity to configure new institutions to meet the requirements of business, industry and public services in different regions: what is needed in the West Midlands will not necessarily be appropriate in Devon and Cornwall.

Education is fundamental to the left’s core purpose. Labour won large majorities under Attlee, Wilson and Blair because they offered working people a vision of a better future for them and their families. As importantly, they showed how to get there: education reform was right at the heart of our manifestos in 1945, 1964 and 1997. Labour needs to rediscover a passion for ‘education, education, education’ to enable current and future generations to adapt and thrive in the digital economy of the 21s century. Reforming our school and college system so every young person can have a successful career would be a good place to start.


Sally Prentice

Sally Prentice is a former member of the Fabian Society executive committee.


Fabian membership

Join the Fabian Society today and help shape the future of the left

You’ll receive the quarterly Fabian Review and at least four reports or pamphlets each year sent to your door

Be a part of the debate at Fabian conferences and events and join one of our network of local Fabian societies

Join the Fabian Society
Fabian Society

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.