Although there is a certain world-weariness – a Brenda from Bristol moment of “not another one” – associated with the prospect of this general election, for the optimistic in education it is hard to hold back a surge of hope. After all, teaching is about hope: tirelessly treating our children not as they infuriatingly are but as they might become. “Maybe,” you think, “education will once again be centre stage, with a realisation by politicians that a civilised society and every citizen’s wellbeing depends on getting it right.”
Superficially the omens look good. It isn’t just that Labour promises to restore the brief period of adequate funding we saw in the decade when Blair prioritised “education, education, education”. Even their opponents accept that “social mobility”, “equality of opportunity” and “equity” are desirable – though their actions betray their words.
If Labour wins this election it must not merely fund and repair the enormous damage to early years provision, schools, further education, lifelong learning opportunities, universities and, vitally, the youth service, it must also tackle some of the systemic structural issues that mean we continue to fail about a third of our young people.
The wishlist is long. We need early years programmes of play and language, starting with health visitors, leading through teacher-run nurseries to formal schooling at age six where pupils experience a curriculum designed to develop values, attitudes and ideas as well as knowledge and skills – in short, affecting their hearts and hands as much as their minds.
Tests and exams should be nationally set, internally marked, externally moderated and regionally validated by a nominated university and employing body. School accountability would be anchored in an independent inspectorate – not Ofsted cosying up to ministers. There would be random national testing to ascertain standards, regional inspections and democratic scrutiny of schools, with a new balanced school scorecard accrediting performance across the full range of desirable school outcomes, not only the academic.
Admission to schools must be locally administered with a policy based not on selection, but on putting one parent’s right to a place at their nearest school ahead of another’s right to choose. Local communities should have a regional network of well-funded colleges of further education, accessible from age 14 into retirement and linked to regional universities, ensuring lifelong learning opportunities for all, with priority for the socio-economically disadvantaged.
Ten percent of entry to major independent schools should be nominated regionally with priority for children in care, with a 10% limit on independent school entry to Russell Group universities. The proposed VAT on independent school fees and an end to the scandalous public funding of private universities would defray the cost of these reforms.
This wishlist needs to be underpinned by four reforms of governance. First, reduce unbridled ministerial powers – now at more than 2,000 (epitomising the most centralised, authoritarian education system in the developed world) where once there were just three. Do this by establishing a statutory standing national educational advisory council of teachers, parents, employers, universities, faith groups, unions, inspectors, and local government, whose advice ministers would be required publicly to seek before making decisions.
Second, reinvigorate local government through 10 democratic regional authorities – comparable in size and responsibility to the Welsh assembly and the Scottish parliament – with members nominated by existing unitary councils, and devolve most ministerial powers and the requirement to maintain nationally approved plans for provision, school improvement, teacher supply and special educational needs services to these two levels.
Third, give local government tax-raising powers, including the control of business rates.
Fourth, insist every school has a governing body including staff and parent representatives, with powers analogous to church-aided schools; and insist schools have the option to leave their multi-academy trusts – too many of which are unnecessarily expensive bureaucratic fifth wheels on the carriage.
Next year is the 150th anniversary of Forster’s Education Act, when a reluctant state made its first tentative steps towards providing education for all. The next educational era was ushered in 75 years ago by Clement Attlee, with education a central plank of the welfare state. It was an age of trust and partnership that lasted until Thatcher decreed the long winter of markets, managerialism and centralisation, bestowing all those unfettered powers on the secretary of state. Its time is now up, and we need to create a change of climate in which the systemic reforms outlined here mark an age of hope and ambition that our young people deserve.