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What Do We Need From Our Education System? (Part One)

“Education should be the golden bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.”


These lines should have been uttered by a Labour politician. But they weren’t. They are the words penned by Aaron Sorkin for his character Sam Seaborn in the hit Drama, “The West Wing”. (2000 Season 1 Episode 18).

Labour politicians may well have thought what Seaborn, a White House staffer and speech writer said but they sure as hell would never have dared say it due to New Labour’s crippling obsession with the news cycle and what the Daily Mail wrote.

Well, here’s the thing (as Sam frequently said). The Mail and the right wing press hate socialism and even it’s neutered bastard offspring New Labour with a passion bordering on the psychotic. They spent 13 years slagging off and lying about the Labour Government. They never gave them one single iota of credit for anything. Ever. It became stated fact in Dacre land that voting Labour gives you cancer.

The facts are this (according to the IFS) New Labour identified education spending as the priority for its administrations. Over the decade between 1999–2000 and 2009–10, it grew by 5.1% per year in real terms, the fastest growth over any decade since the mid-1970s. As a result, spending rose from 4.5% of national income in 1999– 2000 to reach a high point of 6.4% in 2009–10.

This bought the country world class new build schools, an army of support staff and much improved teacher salaries. But things were far from perfect due to Blair’s obsession with showing the right wing press that taxpayers were not being short changed and that the education establishment was answerable to politicians. Hence the interminable meddling, and marketisation of schooling.

The Tories have always detested state schools and with the connivance of the Lib Dems achieved the following (again according the IFS) during the coalition era. Public spending on education fell by an average of 3.5% during the course of the 2010-15 Parliament. This represented the largest cut in education spending over any Parliamentary term since at least the 1950s, and returned education spending as a share of national income back to 4.6% by 2014–15. The idea of working people having any chance to succeed is anathema to their ideology and destroying education is all part of the plan to create a low skill/ high profit economy.

Education in the UK should turn our young people into decent well rounded young adults ready to take their place in modern economy and modern UK society. It is essential this process takes place in order for the economy to reach its potential, to give every young person the best opportunity to live a life of relative prosperity and the cultural and social freedoms that will bring.

On a cynical level, the more people in work, quality work, the lower the benefits bill and the stronger the UK economy. Education for all ages has a crucial role to play in this process; education is the only realistic way of liberating those who want to reach their full potential and we should invest in education, regardless of the price.

Instead of leaping on the Tories dismal record in Government under Michael Gove (moved aside due to his acerbic and confrontational style in summer 2015) and Nicky Morgan, Labour retreated and education fell well down the order of priorities for a Miliband led (stop laughing at the back) Government.

Tristram Hunt replaced the feeble Stephen Twigg as Shadow Education Secretary in summer 2013. He told the Daily Telegraph, “Labour wants competition between schools… and we’d also, where we need new schools, absolutely think about establishing parent-led academies”.

“Parent led academies” was poorly coded support for Gove’s and Morgan’s detested and so far unsuccessful obsession with so called Free Schools. Despite all the evidence to the contrary Labour still wanted to ape the Tories.

The Local Schools Network produced a report in 2012 that showed categorically that secondary schools that were academies were lower attaining that traditional Local Authority controlled establishments. This related not to just the bald 5 A* to C grades at GCSE (40% for academies, 60% for LA schools) but also on how much progress students make, the so called “value added” by the school. 65% made expected progress in academies but in LA schools the figure was 75%.

Then what on earth was Labour thinking? If it wants to create social mobility, economic progress and reduce poverty Labour needs to be moving away from false competition in the education sector, and towards a collaborative approach. Where schools, each with different strengths and weaknesses work together, not in competition to fulfil the core function they were created for, teaching.

There are SIX key areas that must be immediately addressed in the here and now, before we move to aspirations.

One- Inspections, OFSTED. Since its formation under John Major it has been seen as a stick to beat teachers with. Instead as being viewed as a tool to high light and spread good practice, the focus has been to find fault and concentrate on the negatives. A debilitating formula.

The new inspection criteria forced in by Gove is there to set schools up to fail, and force them down the academy route. A socially responsible idea would be involve inspectors staying in school post inspection, and working with the leadership team and the Governors on writing the Improvement Plan, and continuing to offer support as a critical friend.

When in power New Labour, and now Gove have constantly banged on about getting rid of bad teachers. They don’t by the way. The Daily Mail reported in December 2011 that over the preceding ten years just 17 teachers had been kicked out for being incompetent.

“Bad Teachers” are a Tory dog whistle concept and part of the divide a rule agenda, setting workers against each other.

Quality thinking in many areas now looks at peer to peer collaboration to raise standards, essentially schools working together- but to achieve this we must turn away from the policy of seeing schools, and therefore teachers being in competition as the best way to increase standards.

Two- Government has developed the habit of top down initiatives from the Secretary of State which are ill thought out, unfounded and end up dying when the Secretary of State changes, or decides on a new whim. The Languages Programme under New Labour being a prime example.

Gove is the master of tinkering. For a Tory he is the epitome of meddling, micro manager who can’t just let teachers get on and teach. Gove’s mucking about with maths produced the following comment from Terry Wrigley of Leeds Metropolitan University said:
“My own feeling is that Mr Gove is simply not listening to anyone. To think you rely on memorisation is simply a delusion. It strikes me the way that Gove’s mind works is he thinks you raise standards by getting nine-year-olds to remember their 12 times tables and five-year-olds to do fractions. It is not the direction other high-performing countries have taken.”

Let teachers teach is the most used phrase ever, but it happens to be true. Because we’ve all been at school politicians think they are experts. They aren’t. Their job is to set and monitor policy. End of. If only they thought like Sam Seaborn….

Three- key stage examinations, Key Stage external examinations are a monumental waste of money causing stress to all except the private tutors hired by fretful parents, when a properly moderated system can be created based on those who know their students the best; teachers. There of course needs to be a system of monitoring. But guess what? We have legions of top academics and teachers who can produce a fair and equitable system. Let’s give it a whirl.

Four- the curriculum needs to be re-assessed to meet the challenges of the modern economy. Globalisation and expanding technology posed great challenges and opportunity to the British economy and education is the way to meet the demands. But the global economy will require Britain to move away from just being a service based economy. We must become more radical and return to manufacturing, many of the skills have been lost to de-industrialisation and education will have to fill the void. We can do this. We just need to commit and believe in ourselves as the nation that developed everything from penicillin to the Internet. Education and upskilling needs to be a lifelong engagement and be free. After all it will always pay for itself in the long run. Who ever heard of a Society with improving education standards going backwards economically?

Five Immigration. Due to our education and training systems either standing still, or being crunched into reverse gear we are falling behind. There are no studies anywhere that say immigration is bad for the economy, and plenty that say it is good. Even the Daily Telegraph was forced to admit in November 2014 that the net benefit to the country of immigration is £22 billion. And £14 billion of that resulted directly from upskilling in education from immigration. (UCL Report). Immigrants are better than us at the so called key subjects for an burgeoning economy; STEM which stands for science, technology, engineering, and maths. So open borders? Yes please!

Six- unemployment- Education is the quickest way to get people back to employment. Not only does it give them new and needed skills; it can help those long term unemployed gain the confidence needed to interact with others. Work placements as part of a well-rounded skills and education course can get the unemployed back up and running. It’s this sort short term spending on education that will save on welfare in the long term.

If you have been, thank you for reading this and Part Two will be published next week.  Please contain your excitement.


About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.


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