Britain combines several of the best performing universities 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. This reinforces a system which excludes a third of the population from any real political influence. The failings of our public education both result from, and contribute to, the wider aspects of inequality and reflect the fact that historically, many of the politicians who control policy and resources have chosen to opt out of the system when it c0mes to educating their own children.
While inadequate funding is the most immediate and acute problem, poor performance also results from longer term issues which are unique to the Britain. The UK’s disastrous perfomance in key aspects of pre-18 education sits alongside a large, partly tax-payer funded, private schools sector and the lack of democratic control of resources for the state sector at the regional and local levels. Critically, it has also been the subject of a far-reaching experimental restructuring, that has been driven by political conviction rather than evidence and has mis-directed resources and distracted attention from the real underlying problems.
Since the 1980s, parents and elected representatives have been increasingly excluded from decision taking on schooling as power has been transferred to management companies and religious groups. This agenda, which was modelled on experiments in the United States and enthusiastically pushed forward by Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair in the face of widespread hostility from parents and teachers, was sold to the public on the promise that it would dramatically improve educational performance. Based on data published annually by the OECD, it is now clear that this strategy has totally failed in its stated objectives of pushing Britain up the educational attainment rankings and improving equality of opportunity. At the same time it has exaccerbated grave problems which are reflected both in media reports of discrimination, indoctrination and abuse in schools that are controlled by religious organisations and in news of inflated salaries being paid to employees of some school management companies.
Less visible, but of great significance in terms of the kind of society that our children will inherit, replacing democratic overview of schools with private, closed-door, management has eroded opportunities for ordinary people to participate in decision-taking on a crucial aspect of their own lives. As such, it refelcts the assertion that Mrs Thatcher expressed to Woman’s Own in 1987 that: “there’s no such thing as society … and people must look after themselves”, and away from the aspiration of progressive minded people in all parties to contribute to building a society characterised by local initiative, shared decision taking and mutual support.
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 business 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 hold their own in the competitive international environment of the future.
An evolutionary approach to reform
Responsibility for the running of schools has been transferred from head teachers, parents, and education specialists answerable to elected representatives, to business and religious organisations by converting local authority schools into US style “academies” and encouraging the estabishment of so-called “free schools”. In keeping with neo-conservative ideology, ministers have made it clear that it is drive was not just intended to raise standards but also to promotion of “traditional values”. The policy was introduced 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 similar experiments have been carried out.
The result of promoting academies has been fragmentation, a loss of local accountability, the legitimisation of discriminatory selection processes, wasteful duplication and a 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, and that disruption caused by constant restructuring is minimised. But it is clear too that if our educational system is to reach the highest international standards, to encourage young people to develop on their own terms, and to achieve high levels of transparency and accountability, far-reaching changes will be needed.
The Radical Party proposes that:
- a national curriculum is developed which ensures that all school pupils are guaranteed an education which encompasses literacy, numeracy, science, history, citizenship and ethics;
- powers are progressively transferred from the Secretary of State to democratic control and oversight involving head teachers, teaching professionals, parents and elected representatives, backed up with specialist knowledge and experience, by:
- empowering regional, county and unitary authorities to plan, commission and monitor publicly funded schools in their areas, to address shortages of places and to intervene to turn around failing schools;
- channelling resources which currently go directly from the Department for Education to academies and free schools through the existing Regional Commissioners for Education, and bringing them under local democratic oversight;
- thereafter, strategic responsibility for all publicly funded schools should be vested in elected regional education authorities with the resources to ensure effective management and supervision;
- 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. Controls should be tightened to ensure that the material benefits that individuals and organisations receive for running schools are reasonable, and that they are prevented from profiting from the supply of goods or services;
- school funding principles should be reformed to ensure that all resources are made available to all schools such that all children have the opportunity to realise their potential. This will require an increase in funding for schools serving disadvantaged areas;
- steps should be introduced to end discriminatory selection processes, and all schools be required to collaborate to prevent pupils from poorer homes becoming concentrated in particular schools.
Resources and standards
We face an enormous challenge in raising pre-18 educational standards to the highest international level and in tackling the inequalities between different groups of young people. Because of rising pupil numbers, funding foreseen by the Government would involve a reduction of funding per pupil of 2.8% over the period to 2020. In the short term, extra finance needs to be made available to address this immediate threat. Longer term, resources must be provided both to take full account of changing demographic demands, and to fund a determined effort to tackle inequalties between different regions and communities, for example, by tackling the problem of high teacher turnover in socially disadvantaged schools. With this aim, the Government should immediately introduce an appropriate means of incentivising teachers to make a longer term commitment to such schools.
The teaching of core areas of knowlege, that will be essential for pupils when they enter the world of work and for the building of a modern economy, incuding language skills, maths and science, should be made compulsory in all schools, including so called Free Schools. At the same time, determined efforts should be made to challenge the view that education is basically a business and pupils customers, rather than a force to empower young people, to encourage them to develop their abilities and individuality, and to enrich their lives.
The current Teachers Standards need to be reviewed and guaranteed through the Chartered College of Teachers (which should be supported in its further development) in conjunction with local authorities and the proposed regional educational authorities.
School inspectors should be put under the responsiblity of the proposed regional education authorities, once they are established, with the emphasis on school change and development. Steps should be taken to make sure that local education authorities (and the proposed regional education authorities) have the resources and skills they need to ensure that improvements recommended as a result of inspections are implemented and embedded.
Initiatives are needed to promote collaboration between schools, to encourage mentoring, shared best practice and mutual support in helping all schools to become good schools. Mutual support between parents should also be promoted, focusing on preparing infants for school and helping all parents to play a constructive role in supporting their children’s learning and appropriate behaviour and empowering them to protect themselves in an informed way with threats involving dangerous drugs, sexual vulnerability and potentially abusive aspects of the internet.
The Party supports:
- the call for immediate extra funding to reverse the threatened real terms cut and the formulation of a longer term strategy to ensure that resources take full account of changing demographic demands and also to provide for a determined effort to tackle inequalties between different regions and communities;
- support for the development of a national office for educational standards which can play an important role in promoting evidence-based policy making and learning from best practice in this country and abroad;
- the development of collaborative structures involving all schools to provide a framework for mentoring, shared best practice and initiatives to ensure that all schools are good schools, with emphsis on the role of head teachers and school governors ;
- initiatives to develop and promote the active engagement of parents in ensuring that their children are ready for school, and that they are equipped to support their learning and appropriate behaviour while at school;
- measures to raise morale and professional standards in teaching through support for the further development of the role of the Chartered College of Teachers, a review of current Teachers Standards, higher entry qualifications, more demanding teacher education, stage attainment targets and better provision for development, 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 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.
By the same measure, all pupils in publicly funded schools should be protected against requirements which reflect social engineering rather than educational objectives and which go beyond reasonable practical justification. For example, there may be good reasons why a school may wish to lay down minimum standards of dress but, within such parameters, pupils should be protected against unnecessary and intrusive dress codes stipulating, for example, the wearing of ties or that girls should wear skirts rather than trousers, while reflcting the nature of the communities which they serve.
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.
Judged by many criteria, our universities are huge success. At the end of the Sec0nd World War, there were 21 universities in the UK catering for 2% of the population. There are now 135, attended by almost 50% of school leavers; and in the international rankings, only the United States has a greater number in the top 25. The UK is also a significant net recipient of EU research grants and attracts a large number of of overseas students who contribute £16bn a year to the economy in fees and living expenses. In terms of soft power, the Heads of State of 58 countries went to university here, compared with 57 in the US and 33 in France.
But in judging the success of our universities it is necessary to look beyond income and reputation, and ask the question what are they for? First, a university education should be beneficial to the development of the individual – and can be justified on that basis alone. Second, universities play an important part in developing the skills and knowledge that the country needs. And, third, they help the recruitment process and the optimum organisation of the workforce by providing a certificate of knowledge, application and ability.
The first of these objectives appears to be largely achieved with surveys indicating that most graduates are pleased that the went to university. However, it is equally clear that, in the UK at least, the second objective is not being met, with an obvious mismatch between the skills and knowledge being taught and those the country needs. High tuition fees have given universities an incentive to promote courses that are popular and easy to deliver. As a result, the UK now ranks 16th out of 20 OECD countries in terms of the proportion of the population with technical qualifications. This has contributed to a grave shortage of graduates in science, technology, engineering and medicine which can only be met through immigration. At the same time, the mismatch beteen courses offered and the realities of the jobs market has led to a situation where up to a third of graduates end up taking non-graduate jobs. This impacts negatively on the third objective of universities with job seekers with degrees displacing those without, even though the latter may prove to be a better long-term choice. In this sense, a system which should rationalise the labour market ends up at huge expense, instead by distorting it.
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 a proper use of scarce resouces or equitable for the state to take on responsibility for paying tuition fees for all students. This would divert funding from rebuilding the NHS and schools and would raise issues of fairness as between those who stay on in education and those who go straight into the world of work. But it is clear that 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 was 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% and up to 80% now expected never to pay back their loans plus interest in full. 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.
The Party will consult as to how this can best be achieved. The solution should include a lower ceiling on fees and an obligatory up-front contribution from better-off parents, together with an expanded government contribution to be funded by an increase in the higher rate of income tax and a training and education levy on larger employers or an increase in corporation tax. Maintenance grants should be reintroduced for students from lower income homes provision made to subsudise tuition in areas of critical skills shortage and modest earnings such as nursing.
Increased tuition fees have had a particularly severe impact on enrolment to part time courses, which have seen a sharp drop in student numbers. This problem needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency, as part time study makes an important contribution to equality of opportunity and to maximising the potential of the nation’s human capital. At the same time, the Government should take steps to encourage the provision of a much wider range of one and two year courses. It should encourage universities to provide formal recognition of successful completion of each year of study through certificates and diplomas whch could be recognised by employers as proof of achievement at a lower level than full degrees.
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 ceiling for fees for first degree courses should be lowered;
- the principle of solidarity between generations should be reflected in a requirement for parents who able to contribute to the cost of fees and maintenance for their children while they are pursuing post-18 study or training;
- maintenance grants should be reintroduced for students from lower income families;
- a wider range of one year starter courses and two year basic degree courses should be introduced to improve access;
- universities and colleges should be encouraged to provide formal recognition of successful completion of each year of study in a form which could be recognised by employers;
- 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 our international competitors. Key factors in this are the low level of public investment in science (which stimulates investment by the private sector); the likely 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 from among the existing staff, coupled with a determined effort 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 science, and the involvement of British scientists in international science collaboration with public funding to support relevant activities in schools, community organisations and other relevant bodies.