Wanted: a profound shift in how we run, fund and judge

While parents fund-raise for resources and headteachers take to the streets in protest at government cuts, Dave Lister finds Melissa Benn outlines a strong case for an alternative education system

Labour has a plan to establish a National Education Service providing free education over the course of a lifetime. Melissa Benn’s book offers a blueprint for such a service.

Benn starts by sketching out the background. The 1944 Education Act established a national education system for children up to the age of 15. However at secondary level it also created what became a binary system of grammar and secondary modern schools with less good provision for something like 80% of mainly working-class children who failed the 11-plus. The move to comprehensive education in the 1960s and ’70s changed all that. She makes the point that too much of the subsequent discussion of comprehensivisation was negative – from the Black Paperites to Alastair Campbell’s “bog standard” schools. There has been too little celebration of the very real successes of comprehensive schools with, for instance, a huge increase in the number of students still in education at age 17 from 31% in 1977 to 76% in 2011 and in those going on to university.

She sees the majority of the education reforms from the 1980s onwards as having a negative impact. These include the development of national testing, the introduction of league tables and the academisation process. This has led to the loss of local democratic control with in many cases a handful of ‘members’ given the right to agree a Trust’s constitution, appoint and sack other Trustees and control large budgets. It is also the case that many schools in MATs (multi-academy trusts) have far less freedom than they had previously.

Other reforms introduced by Michael Gove have wreaked havoc on schooling. Benn says that they were introduced too speedily and without consultation. The result has been greatly increased stress among pupils and their teachers with all the joy removed from learning to be replaced by drilling/teaching to the test and an obsession with data leading to teachers becoming even more overworked. Yet despite what the DfE wants us to believe there has been no significant narrowing of the attainment gap between children from less well off and those from more affluent families. Clearly some schools and teachers have managed to rise above all this and still deliver interesting lessons but their task has been made infinitely harder.

Benn is talking about education ‘from the cradle to the grave’ and therefore discusses the shortcomings and her solutions for each sector. In terms of early years, there is too much formal teaching of literacy and numeracy. She points out that some other countries with successful outcomes start formal learning much later than England and suggests that greater emphasis on play-based learning is the way forward.

At primary level she wants to abolish the Key Stage tests, pointing out that children in England are among the most tested in the world, and introduce a broader curriculum. A broader curriculum is also needed at secondary level where increasing numbers of schools are ending Key Stage Three a year early to focus on drilling children to pass their GCSE examinations. She wants to see the restoration of teaching in the Arts, Drama and Sex and Relationship Education continue beyond age 13.

One important area Benn does not cover is the growing practice of ‘off rolling’ pupils. It is estimated that 30,000 pupils have disappeared from school rolls in the period before GCSE examinations over the past three years – 13,000 last year. This is done to improve exam performance and to remove disruptive pupils. A Sheffield MP, Louise Haigh, reported last year that one primary school in her constituency had to take on 20 new pupils because they were excluded or were at risk of exclusion from a nearby academy. Ofsted are finally taking action over ‘off rolling’ and their inspectors will be looking at pupil rolls to see if there is any evidence of it.

At FE level there is a crisis of funding, as there is with schools, and funding shrunk by a quarter between 2013-15. FE lecturers are paid less than school teachers and their conditions are worse. Benn proposes that there should be a parity of esteem between academic and vocational subjects. To some extent the Government has acknowledged this with the introduction of T levels and the apprenticeship levy. She points out that if Brexit happens there will be a reduction in the number of skilled workers entering the country and a consequent need for the development of the skills of Britain’s young people.

At university level there is the disparity between the high pay of many vice chancellors and the low pay and uncertain conditions of many junior staff. Labour’s pledge to abolish tuition fees is applauded. Their introduction has made the English system one of the most expensive in the world. Finally, she wants to see the restoration of funding for adult education. As people live longer there should be increased opportunities for them to attend courses.

In general terms Benn says that “a new educational settlement does not require the setting up of overbearing new structures. Rather it involves a profound shift in how we run, fund, judge…” Although not many primary schools have been academised, nearly three quarters of secondary schools are now academies. She wants to see them returned to local democratic control over time. I have argued that a Labour Government would need to prioritise and it would make sense to focus on bringing failed academies and schools which were forced to academise back under Local Authority control.

Benn also wants to see the remaining grammar schools and all private/public schools integrated into the maintained school system over time. Labour was committed to the abolition of the private sector in the early 1960s but has never bitten this particular bullet when in office. Comprehensive Future proposes that we gradually open grammar schools up to a fully comprehensive intake. Other key points are:

  • Teachers need to be trusted to teach and tight monitoring of them needs to end.
  • Headteachers and teachers are leaving the profession in droves and action needs to be taken to make leadership and teaching less stressful and more manageable.
  • Abolish Ofsted and replace it with a Local School Support and Improvement Office.

Most readers would agree with almost everything Melissa Benn has written in Life Lessons. It’s packed with ideas and valuable information. One weakness is that the free flow of her writing means that at times there are disconcerting jumps from one education sector to another. Tighter editing would have helped avoid this.

If Labour wins power education reform should be an important priority. Ending harmful measures and replacing them with effective solutions in order to ensure that education becomes a rewarding experience for all children must be the way forward. Labour politicians should read this book and listen to the people who really know about and understand education at all stages. Angela Rayner (shadow education secretary) please note.

Life Lessons: The Case for a National Education Service by Melissa Benn (Verso, £8.99)

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