In one of the stand-out performances of the Labour conference, Angela Rayner began to outline Labour’s proposal for an alternative education system. This included funding further education (FE) properly with the return of the education maintenance allowance (EMA) as well as commitments on childcare.
Perhaps most importantly though, she argued that vocational and academic education must be put on an even pegging. This last commitment is a huge task and it means thinking strategically about how to take on and challenge the elite educational institutions around which the whole curriculum is structured.
Building a long-term plan for education.
Technical and vocational education policy also requires a serious and radical industrial policy, otherwise it is won’t go anywhere. The advantage of Labour’s platform here is that John McDonnell’s proposals for a national investment bank and an entrepreneurial state offer the potential for a broad platform for a new social settlement. Ending the unequal division between academic and vocational education also means challenging the idea that academic knowledge is paramount and, in many ways, that is the bigger battle.
There are easy steps that can be taken here. Opposing grammar schools is a no-brainer and Theresa May’s enormous own-goal offers clear ground for unifying a broad campaign for an educational alternative. Another easy move would be abolishing the fatuous and unpopular English Baccalaureate (AKA EBacc), which is a deliberate attempt to bolster a traditional curriculum which favours the elite and middle classes. However, we also need a long-term political strategy to move us towards a radical, transformative and deeply progressive system of learning and education.
Beyond a short-to-medium-term political plan, we need a strategic logic which takes seriously the need to build a new radical educational settlement of the left. In the same way that the New Right began to develop its political ideas in opposition to comprehensive reform over the 1970s, we now need to begin to do the same political and intellectual work in thinking about what kind of system we want. That means acknowledging where comprehensive education reform went wrong – and central to its failures was not reforming the academic curriculum. This allowed the point of selection to creep upwards to the age of 16 at which point a ‘national’ system of ‘common’ examinations – GCSEs – was created but along lines that protected middle-class advantage. It is not enough to simply oppose the spread of the 11-plus, we need to end the de facto 16-plus in its current form.
Tackling the logic of selection and segregation.
In her conference speech Rayner emphasised her personal background, and as a working-class woman who left school at 16 she experienced the effects of a system which still selects people by academic ‘ability’ albeit on entry to post-16 education. The snobbery and elitism, the persisting maleness and whiteness of ‘academic’ education, means the most prestigious forms of education have never belonged to the marginalised or the oppressed in British society. In fact, the entirety of the school system is organised around the needs of educating an academic elite, which, of course, is a social elite too. Since 1945 there have been 33 education ministers; 22 were educated at Oxbridge and 23 at private schools. You cannot read off people’s politics from their education, but the reason Angela Rayner is such a potentially powerful figure is because she represents the very people our education system has been designed to exclude.
At every stage of schooling after entry to secondary school at 11, the system is designed to filter-out and select. When selection at 11 was gradually abolished after 1965, the process of social segregation in education did not stop – it simply changed the way it operated. From the earliest experiments with comprehensive secondary education, the use of setting and streaming meant that the logic of selection was preserved within the comprehensive model.
Let’s be clear: comprehensive schooling was the most radical education reform of the 20th century, but it did not produce an education system which placed the needs of working-class students – a disproportionate number of whom came from ethnic-minority backgrounds – first. This, in part was because the battles over setting and streaming and over what counts as knowledge were lost. There was never a serious attempt to challenge the academic curriculum. Comprehensive reform began with the perhaps understandable slogan from Harold Wilson, ‘a grammar school for every child’. Even at the time, there had been serious sociological work showing how divisive and damaging grammar schooling was, even for those working-class students who did make it in.
And yet, there was no political or cultural imagination about an alternative model or system which could challenge the prestige of the academic curriculum. The curriculum of the grammar school was preserved in the sixth form. When comprehensivisation happened, the vice chancellors of the ‘universities’ as they were then, publicly declared their desire for the sixth form to be preserved. All through the 70s, attempts at exam and curricular reform which aimed to build a 14-18 system around the needs of all students – not just a social and academic elite – failed. They were deliberately blocked by a powerful set of ‘small-c’ conservative majorities on the committees tasked with reviewing and suggesting new exam structures. Even before the destructive reforms of Margaret Thatcher’s governments, education was set on a path which preserved educational segregation.
Understanding how education entrenches inequality.
Labour would be wise to remember this, because what it has lacked historically is a systematic understanding of how elite forms of education – from Oxbridge and Eton right down to the sixth form of your averagely desirable suburban comprehensive school – recreate structures of class power and oppression. On entry to government in 1945, the chance to reform and ultimately abolish a much weakened private school system was dropped by Labour. Again in 1967 the report of the Donnison Commission on private schooling was itself a fudge, failing to push for abolition, and was in any case forgotten and ignored.
In short, there has never been an imaginative and necessarily radical alternative which has recognised the need to challenge and ultimately destroy the elite educational structures we now have. Yet this is precisely what is required. The job we have on our hands is to make sure that this happens, slowly and gradually, through the proposals for a new National Educational Service. The education reforms implemented by the New Right from the 1980s, and continued through PFI, Foundation and then City Academies under New Labour, took 30 years to work through. We must now prepare ourselves for a similar battle.
What we have on our side is that we already know what a transformative education system looks like. It is there in our further education colleges, in the labour colleges and even in the comprehensive schools where radical teachers still hold out. A wonderful project, FE Transforms, funded by the University and College Union is documenting the transformative and radical potential of further education. The testimonies of the learners in this project speak to the emancipatory potential of education, despite the best efforts of the Coalition and current government to cut and destroy further education. Post-1992 universities have also held onto their radical traditions despite the huge market pressures operating on them, and where ‘widening participation’ happens in higher education it happens there. What is needed is the reversal of funding models which mean that those universities which take the greatest number of working-class, mature and ethnic minority students have the least financial resources to support these students.
Liberating education through democracy.
This is not simply about funding however. Building an alternative system means bringing education back under democratic control of staff, students and local communities. In the mid-1970s, Robin Pedley argued that after 16 all educational institutions (FE colleges, post-1992 and ‘old’ universities) should be included under the remit of the local comprehensive university. This would seek to ensure a modular system allowing maximum mobility across courses, institution types and curriculums. Most importantly, it would be controlled by a directly-elected council. We need to insist on the universal principle of control by workers (all education workers – not just teaching staff) and, in the case of education, students, right across the economy.
Building this alternative system means fashioning a new consensus over the meaning of education in society. This must be done from the bottom-up and we must engage the excluded and the marginalised in building a new programme – enforcing top-down political reform over education was one of the weaknesses of comprehensive reform. Make no mistake, our project is huge. We are in the business of re-making and utterly transforming what education means. Education has for too long had as its primary social function the reproduction of a narrow elite and a larger middle class. Our object is to slowly build a consensus for education as something that is fundamental to all our lives and which does not take as its guiding force the curriculum of a social and academic elite. This means starting with people’s everyday needs but keeping in mind a strategy for dismantling education as a tool for oppression.
Our goal is a powerful structural transformation of education, both in terms of what it means and who it is for. Because it is for all of us. Learning is the most important gift we give to each other, it is not to be feared or used to exclude and segregate. As Angela Rayner argued, every child has merit – we, all of us, have value and worth. Education should set us free and allow us to build something better. We most hold this in our hearts and our minds as we begin the long fight to transform education.