The future of the left since 1884

Time for a plan

Building a new education system demands vision and courage, argues Kevin Courtney.



We need a new education programme, urgently. We need it to give a sense of focus and hope to all those across the world of education who are struggling with the effects of a system that is not merely incapable of responding to a deepening social crisis, but is actually making that crisis worse. We need it so that the next government hits the ground running, with no less speed, and much more intelligence, than Michael Gove in 2010.

Labour’s plans for a National Education Service (NES) can meet these needs, if they take the full measure of the critical state our schools are in, and if they are bold enough to inspire the commitment of those who work in education and those who use its services.

It is thirty years since Margaret Thatcher’s Education Reform Act established the framework of a new school system in England, a framework which no government since has tried to step outside. Parents, teachers – and policymakers – have at most only a fading memory of a different system. The patterns of our everyday work, and the horizons of our imagination, are to a large extent set by ‘1988’. It is difficult to imagine a system of accountability without Ofsted, of assessment without SATs, of school governance without academies.

Yet, every system reaches a point where it needs to be evaluated against the needs of a changing world, and where the promises made in its early years must be weighed against its consequences. We have reached that point in the case of the 1988 reforms. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) director for education and skills says that classroom life in English schools is focused on ‘memorisation’ and ‘drilling’. The Education Policy Institute concludes that Ofsted systematically undervalues working-class schools and overestimates the achievement of schools with more privileged intakes. A major report from the Institute of Education finds that a market-led school system has put finances before the wellbeing of pupils. These are profound criticisms, and they are accumulating in number and in severity: they amount to a judgement that our school system is broken.

This is a recognition that is widely shared. Much less developed is a sense of how to move forward. New Labour, especially through the eloquence of Tony Blair, David Blunkett and Michael Barber, implanted into the mindset of policy-makers on the left the idea that teachers (and their unions) were a hindrance to policy. Left to themselves, teachers would set low expectations, and be incapable of raising standards. Hence New Labour’s search for policy mechanisms that could push teachers beyond what were assumed to be their natural limits: mechanisms of market competition, centralised target-setting, high-stakes testing and constant evaluation and inspection.

It will take courage and imagination to discard these fears, and the policy legacy associated with them. It will also require a new way of thinking about standards, governance and accountability – and this, I recognise, is a challenge for teachers as well as policy-makers. Critique and rejection are the easy part. The difficulty arises when asked for alternatives. The NES will need to be based on concrete proposals, not good intentions.

Here are two examples of these. First, assessment: We know about the damaging effects of SATs, but the lingering, Blunkettian question is if we get rid of them, how can we monitor and improve the quality of primary education? There is no getting round the first answer to this question. Teachers have to be trusted to evaluate and support children’s learning. We now know that stripping away their prime responsibility for these functions has too many ill effects. But rightly, this answer will not satisfy concerns about accountability, and about the consequences for equity at a national level of an assessment system which might be internal to the individual school. This is where the NES should draw from global experience.

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an international survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. In 2015 over half a million students, in 72 countries took the two-hour test.

The OECD’s PISA system of evaluation does not rely on testing all students in a country to make inferences about the quality of national education. Like PISA, we should use sampling across ages and subjects, to monitor national trends. At school level – as the most successful and innovative systems do – we should rely on self-evaluation, but complemented by the advice and support of local inspection services or a new HMI. Increasing trust in teachers, improving their capability, and providing them with critical support are essential to the revival of quality in primary education.

Second, the academy model has undermined democratic accountability of schools to their communities, reduced professional autonomy and discouraged effective collaboration between education professionals. The NES must take the full measure of this problem. But it is not one which can be resolved overnight. There are no well-resourced local authorities capable of instantaneously reintegrating large numbers of academies into the public sector. The NES must therefore have an immediate, as well as a long-term plan. It should learn from the example of the right, which understands how to take apparently limited initiatives, which then become the basis for systemic change.

The NES should make clear that from day one of a new government, local authorities would be able to open schools without a competition with other providers. No more academy orders would be issued. Academy schools would be able to rejoin the local authority. Legislation should rapidly follow. Schools in multi-academy trusts (MATs) would have an independent legal status and be able to leave the MAT. MATs should be democratic bodies – elected by school communities. National pay and conditions for teachers and support staff would apply in all state funded schools, whether academies or not. Admission practices should be inclusive and transparent.

Those who work in education are expecting a plan which exudes clarity and confidence, which is resourceful and realistic in the short term, and inspiring in its long-term vision. It is in this spirit that we await the first appearance of the NES.

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is joint general secretary of the National Education Union


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