Towards a Labour education agenda for 2020.

This article is included in the current issue of the SEA journal, Education Politics

The SEA is currently going about the task of developing a new education policy agenda for England. Our aim is to provide Labour with a comprehensive road map for the future and to challenge the damaging and backward looking policies of the current government.

This process is now well under way. At our meetings this year in Birmingham and Liverpool we’ve looked in detail at three of the ten areas that we identified as themes that we need to address. We’ve addressed the issues around the school workforce, the inspection and accountability of schools and the needs of young people with special educational needs and disabilities.

At our next meeting in Cardiff on May 13th we’ll be looking at the whole issue of inequality – looking at how poverty, privilege, gender, ethnicity and geography all contribute to severely unequal outcomes from our education system. Then at our annual conference on June 24th in London, we’ll be focussing on the curriculum from early years through primary and secondary to post 16. We’ll look at what we teach, how we teach it and how we should assess children’s progress. An important factor will be to re-define the boundary between the roles of politicians and professional educatorw which has become so disastrously blurred in recent years.

In the debates we’ve had so far a number of themes are beginning to emerge that have implications for many aspects of our education service. Key themes are:

– Education is already underfunded and this is going to get worse. This has implications for pay and hence for recruitment and retention. We found it also has implications for SEND pupils, especially where the support services on which they so much rely have been decimated.

– The punitive focus on testing and accountability is damaging in so many ways. It’s contributing to the crisis in teacher morale and retention.  It’s distorting what is taught and how it’s taught.  The pressure of Ofsted and league tables mean that too often the narrow interests of the school are put above the interests of the pupils.

– Marketisation and privatisation are destroying the frameworks that supported collaboration and helped to ensure a degree of fairness for all. In particular, pupils with special needs are at risk when local partnerships break down.

We’re very keen that as many SEA members as possible are involved in this process as possible and we know that members in other parts of the country won’t be able to get to meetings. So here are some of the perhaps trickier questions and issues that we’ll need to resolve and about which it would be really helpful to get the views of members and supporters.

What do you think about these issues?

Q1.         We know education needs higher levels of funding. So do many other public services. Being credible about the public finances is really important. So what should we be saying about how the money should be found?

Q2          Provision for children with special needs has to strike a balance between the principle of inclusion, parental choice and the highly specialist provision that some children need. This often leads to conflict between families, schools and local authorities, especially at a time when money is short. What is the right balance between inclusion in mainstream and specialist provision? And who should decide what is right for an individual child?

Q3          By 2020, academisation will probably be even further advanced. Pressure to put schools into multi-academy trusts will continue and lots of elaborate organisational structures and personal vested interests will have been established. SEA has always opposed the academy model – but how practically should we go about restoring education as a public service with proper democratic accountability?

Q4          Selection isn’t just about grammar schools. English education is bedevilled by academic, religious and socio-economic segregation in virtually every area. How can we make our school system more genuinely comprehensive?

Q5          All research says that too many children under achieve in English schools. Why does that happen and what can we do about it? How far is this about what schools do – and how can that change? But also how far is it about how unequal our society is as a whole? What other kinds of things need to change if children are to have a more equal chance of success in school and beyond?

Q6          SEA believes there is too much of a blame culture around schools arising from our current approach to testing, league tables and inspection. We do need systems to tell us how well children and schools are doing and to identify what needs to improve. So, how can we monitor and support schools and children without the damaging effects caused by our present systems?

Q7          We’ve had a National Curriculum since 1988. Since that time, it’s become more and more dominated by political opinions but, of course, it doesn’t apply to academies. So, do we still need a National Curriculum? If we do, what’s wrong with the one we’ve got, how prescriptive should it be, who should be responsible for deciding what’s in it and how it should be kept up to date?

If you’ve got views on any of these issues do please let us know. They could be used too as the framework for local debates in CLPs, union branches or any other local forums.

Please e mail your responses and ideas to socialisteducation@virginmedia.com.

On our website at https://socialisteducationalassociation.org/sea-manifesto-2017/ you can find the first group of materials prepared for this manifesto. We’d like to have lots more contributions – we know SEA members have expertise in just about every aspect of education. Do share your ideas so we can make sure our manifesto draws on all that knowledge and experience.

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