Reinforcing a system which excludes a third of the population from any real political influence, Britain combines the best performing university system in the World with a disastrous record in terms of basic literacy and numeracy and a secondary schools system which under-performs almost all of our international competitors.
Literacy and numeracy
According to studies by the OECD, the UK consistently comes out as either the worst or the second worst (after the US) of the 24 advanced democracies in terms of the proportion of 16-18 year olds who are competent in reading, writing and basic mathematics. This failure is a fundamental factor in our shocking level of inequality and undermines any prospect of keeping pace with competitors in Europe and Asia.
Employer surveys repeatedly underline that good literacy and number skills are a key factor in recruitment. Those who lack these skills risk spending the rest of their lives at a crippling disadvantage in the world of work and in every other aspect of their lives. A far-reaching improvement in outcomes will be needed if young people in Britain are to be able to hold their own in the competitive international environment of the future.
An evolutionary approach to reform
Many of the problems our educational system now faces result from thirty years of Conservative and Labour efforts to transfer responsibility for the running of schools from parents, and education specialists answerable to elected representatives, to business and religious organisations by converting local authority schools into US style “academies”.
The stated objective of this policy has been to raise standards, but in keeping with neo-conservative ideology, ministers have made it clear that it is also intended to encourage the promotion of “traditional values”. The policy was introduced piecemeal without any serious attempt to assess it against alternative reform strategies. It has not proved an effective means of addressing educational disadvantage either in the UK or in the United States and Sweden, where experiments have been carried out with similar systems.
The result of promoting academies has been fragmentation, a loss of local accountability, the legitimisation of discriminatory selection processes, wasteful duplication and shift in investment away from schools in greatest need to those converting to become academies. It is important that lessons are learnt both from the failings of the old system and from the experiments of recent years. It is also crucial that disruption caused by constant restructuring is avoided. The Radical Party proposes that:
- a step by step approach is adopted, focusing on progressively transferring powers back from the Secretary of State to parents and elected representatives backed up with specialist knowledge and experience;
- support for converting state schools into academies is ended and a pathway created for them to return to democratic control through elected local and regional education authorities;
- in the medium term, strategic responsibility for publicly funded schools should be vested in elected regional education authorities with the resources to ensure effective management and supervision. In the meanwhile, county and municipal authorities should be given the power to plan, commission and monitor publicly funded schools in their areas, to address shortages of places and to intervene to turn around failing schools;
- all schools and bodies involved in education should be required to comply with the principles of freedom of information and should be publicly accountable for their use of taxpayers money in a transparent way. Individuals and organisations involved in the running of schools should be barred from taking a profit from managing them, or from being involved in supplying goods or services.;
- school funding principles should be reformed to end the practice whereby academies and free schools receive more resources than other schools. Procedures should be introduced to prevent discriminatory selection processes, and all schools should be required to collaborate to prevent pupils from poorer homes becoming concentrated in particular schools.
Britain faces an enormous challenge in raising pre-18 educational standards to the highest international level and in tackling the inequalities which currently exist between different groups of young people. Because of rising pupil numbers, funding foreseen by the Government would involve a reduction of resources in real terms per pupil of 2.8% over the period to 2020. The Party:
- supports the call for immediate extra funding to reverse this threatened cut;
- it supports the establishment of an independent Office for Educational Standards to promote evidence-based policy making and learning from best practice from this country and abroad;
- raising morale and professional standards in teaching through higher entry qualifications, more demanding teacher education, better provision for development and improved pay and conditions and enhanced career development opportunities.
Tolerance and mutual respect.
The Radical Party believes that parents should decide the philosophical framework within which their children are raised. Current legislation requires every school (apart from so-called “faith schools”) to provide “a daily collective Act of worship of a broadly Christian nature”. Religious education (under the 1944 Education Act) is compulsory in all schools and this is the only compulsory subject in academies. “Faith” schools can control their intake and provide religious instruction, which may either be Christian or, subject to approval government approval, of another religion. This clearly discriminates against the more than half of the population who are not religious, or who adhere to minority systems of belief.
Giving some schools the right to control their intake along religious lines and requiring all schools to provide religious worship divides communities. It also involves politicians in taking decisions on what does, and does not, constitute a legitimate religion. The Party considers that:
- all parents should be given the option of choosing a secular alternative for the ethical component of their children’s education and all publicly funded schools should be required to make proper provision to meet this need. In the longer term, a secular system of publicly funded education, as exists in France and the United States, would provide the best foundation for tolerance, fairness and mutual respect in a society of diverse loyalties and beliefs;
- students should be helped to acquire a balanced understanding of different religions, philosophies and cultural tradition through the curriculum without the school being required to promote one system of belief above the others;
- all schools should be required to provide a broad-based sex and relationships education for all pupils based on a framework agreed at the national level.
The sharp rise in the proportion of school leavers going on to post-18 education has brought to the fore the issue of funding. The Party does not believe that it would be realistic for the state to simply take on responsibility for paying tuition fees for all students. This would divert scarce resources from rebuilding the NHS and schools and would raise issues of equity as between those who stay on in education and those who go straight into the world of work. But fundamental reform is urgently needed.
The system adopted of tuition fees backed by loans, was ill-thought out, was introduced from the US for reasons of short-term electoral expediency, and based on unsubstantiated assumptions. Giving universities the right to determine the fees they charge (within a cap), has not led to a market based on different levels of fee as all institutions have chosen to charge the maximum fee. While those in elite institutions and those from better-off households can expect a financial return on their investment over their lifetimes, many others will never recover the cost of their loans. And the assumption that a high proportion of graduates would actually pay back their loans now seems very unrealistic with estimates of the default rate ranging from 25% to 49%. The fact that authoritative sources envisage a problem of this scale is a clear indication that the present system needs to be replaced as soon as possible.
While protecting the resources available for higher education, tuition fees should be fundamentally reformed to end the situation where many young people enter the world of work with heavy debts. The Party will consult as to how this can best be achieved. The solution should include an obligatory up-front contribution from better-off parents, an expanded government contribution to reduce the cost of post-18 education for students from a broader range of lower income families, and much wider provision of one and two year courses.
Increased tuition fees have had a particularly severe impact on enrolment to part time courses, which have seen a sharp drop in student numbers. Part time study makes an important contribution to equality of opportunity and in maximising the potential of the nation’s human capital. The Party proposes that:
- the system of tuition fees should be fundamentally reformed to end the situation where young people enter the world of work with heavy debts;
- the case should be explored for government support for the introduction of a wider range of one year starter courses and two year basic degree courses to improve access;
- urgent steps should be taken to address the problem of the impact of tuition fees on enrollment in part time post-18 education.
Science and research
Britain has played an exceptional part in the advance of science and has benefited from this through knowledge-based enterprises, which have contributed hugely to our prosperity. But this advantage is now under threat as investment in research declines in relation to international competitors. Key factors in this are the low level of public investment in science (which stimulates investment by the private sector); the anticipated consequences of Brexit; our poor performance in maths, science and engineering; and policies which make it difficult for skilled people from abroad to study and take up employment in the UK.
The Party supports the objective set out by the Campaign for Science and Engineering for a major increase in government investment in research from the current level of 0.5% of GDP and for efforts to raise not-for-profit and private spending on science and R&D from the current 1.0% to 2.0% of GDP, to match the levels achieved in Germany and the US. The Party supports:
- the appointment of science champions in primary schools and determined efforts to raise the number of school students (especially girls) studying maths and science;
- measures to ensure that students in further and higher higher education are not deterred by additional costs associated with studying science or engineering subjects and to encourage more people to study science and engineering at postgraduate level, where the shortfall of skills in the labour market is particularly acute;
- the establishment of an annual day to celebrate the achievements of British scientists with public funding to support relevant activities in schools, community organisations and other relevant bodies.