To produce the goods and services we need efficiently and without exhaustion and destruction – to reshape our economy to avoid climate catastrophe – to add beauty to life – to be informed about our social conditions and equipped to debate and decide on them – we need education.
Decades of battle by the labour movement have won us universal, free education to secondary level, and even the chance for many young working-class people to go on to university.
But the Tories have been stunting that and winding it back.
The huge increase in student fees in 2010 has hit older and part-time university students hardest. Fewer of those who missed out in their teens, or who want to refresh their learning later in life, can get to university. A fierce squeeze on Further Education has hit adult education and courses like English for Speakers of Other Languages (cut 40% since 2010).
Labour pledges a National Education Service and the scrapping of student fees. That should enable real lifelong learning, and ease the debt burden on those who do get to university.
An obsession with making school into “exam factories”, focused on so-called “core academic” subjects, has marginalised and downgraded important areas of learning. A survey in 2017 found that GCSE courses in design and technology had disappeared from nearly half of schools. Students more interested in design and technology and other hands-on learning find themselves branded as “failures”.
The whole “exam factory” and “league tables” culture works to make schooling a process which teaches many students, above all, that they are “failures”.
That the exams, set by competing exam boards competing to offer predictable assessments cheaply marked, test only the most standardised skills in the most stereotyped contexts, makes this worse. Even the bosses’ Confederation of British Industry says that GCSEs are harmful. Yet years of students’ and teachers’ efforts are focused on them.
Labour has pledged to abolish SATs tests in primary schools.
The “exam factory” culture, and cuts, have led to a squeeze on SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) provision.
The “league tables” also set up schools as competing businesses, rather than as cooperating. The big expansion of academies and free schools under the Tory government makes that worse.
By early 2019, more than half all state-funded school students in England were in academies or “free schools”, schools directly funded by central government without democratic accountability and without obligation to respect nationally-agreed pay and conditions for their staff.
These academies usually build up big hierarchies of “Principals”, “Executive Principals”, and academy-chain “CEOs”. A series of scandals has shown those managers to be overpaid and often to make money on the side by giving contracts from the school to firms run by their friends and family members.
Often the managers bully and harass both students and school workers. In the name of “behaviour management” students get excluded from education for slight imperfections in expensive uniforms. The turnover of teachers is high. One teacher in three quits the trade altogether within five years of starting.
Although this country is getting less religious, schools are getting more religious. 37% of state-funded primaries, and 19% of state-funded secondaries, are “faith schools”. These are divisive and make it more difficult for children to make their own decisions about religion — or no religion — as they grow up.
Also divisive are private schools and grammar schools. Their resources, like those of academies and free schools, should be integrated into the public education system, under the control of democratic local authorities.