An education system that provides opportunities for all must be at the centre of any programme to create a fair and prosperous Britain. This must start with a major increase in support for pre-school education and carry right through to part-time, continuing and postgraduate study. The issue is not just one of reforming failing structures and increasing resources, it is also a matter of raising expectations among people from disadvantaged backgrounds and of ensuring that excellent education is available for all.
Ensuring access to good quality nursery care is a key element in giving children a fair start in life and in creating conditions where mothers and fathers have access to employment and career development across their working lives. This is especially important in economically disadvantaged areas, which are often poorly served. The cost of nursery care imposes a heavy burden on many parents just at a time when finances are most stretched.
Meanwhile, support for nursery places for the children of parents on low incomes is generally insufficient to allow them to work full time. The Government’s “30 hours free childcare” initiative has encouraged parents who already have children in nurseries to increase their hours but has been less successful in encouraging new families to send their children to nurseries, which highlights to need for better funding.
The Party considers that the UK should move as quickly as possible to a situation where nursery education is available free or at modest cost for all children, with priority in the roll-out going to families in areas of deprivation. The benefit to the economy of enabling young parents to return to work sooner and pay taxes would offset the extra cost to the public purse and would bring far-reaching benefits in terms of equality of earnings and career development as between men and women. At the same time, measures should be taken to raise the terms and conditions and status of childcare workers to help the address the severe problem with recruitment that affects the sector.
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. According to studies by the OECD, the UK consistently comes 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, undermining any prospect of our keeping pace with business competitors in Europe and Asia.
Employer surveys 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. As a first step, the Party proposes that a real national curriculum is developed which ensures that all pupils are guaranteed an education which encompasses language skills, numeracy, science, history, citizenship and ethics.
While funding is the most immediate problem, under performance also results from longer-term issues which are unique to Britain. The UK’s disastrous record on key indicators of pre-18 education sits alongside a large, partly tax-payer funded, private schools sector which is unique among advanced economy countries and a lack of local democratic control of resources for state schools. Since the 1980s, state schools have been subjected to a far-reaching neo-conservative restructuring that has transferred the control of many schools from local authorities to commercial and religious organisations. This agenda, which was modelled on experiments in the United States and pushed forward by Conservative and Labour Governments in the face of widespread hostility from parents and teachers.
Based on data published annually by the OECD, it is now clear that this strategy has totally failed in its stated objectives of improving outcomes and equality of opportunity. Thus, research carried out by the inspection analysis organisation Angel Solutions into 429 council-maintained schools rated inadequate by Ofsted in 2013 showed that 75% to those which had remained under local authority control had improved to good or excellent, as compared to only 59% of those which had converted to academies. Yet, the Government ruled in 2016, that in future all schools rated inadequate by Ofsted must become sponsor-led academies! At the same time, the attack on local democratic oversight of schools has reduced transparency and, judging by media reports, sometimes opened the way to discrimination, indoctrination and abuse in some schools.
Less visible, but significant in terms of the kind of society the next generation 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 children’s lives. As such, it reflects the view 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 for a society characterised by local initiative, shared decision-taking and mutual support.
An Evolutionary Approach to Reform
Responsibility for running schools has largely been transferred from head teachers, parents, and local authority representatives, to business and religious organisations by converting local authority schools into US-style “academies” and encouraging the establishment of so-called “free schools”. In keeping with their neo-conservative ideology, ministers have made it clear that this drive is not just intended to raise standards but also to promote “traditional values”. The policy was introduced without any serious attempt to assess it against alternative reform strategies and it has not proved an effective means of addressing educational disadvantage either in the UK or in Sweden, where similar experiments have been conducted.
Academisation had caused 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 also clear that if our educational system is to improve, to permit young people to develop on their own terms, and to guarantee transparency and accountability, far-reaching changes will be needed.
The Radical Party supports the call for a longer-term strategy to tackle inequalities between different regions and communities. It calls for the development of a National Office for Educational Standards charged with playing an important role in promoting evidence-based policy making and learning from best practice in this country and abroad.
It believes that powers should be 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. Regional, county and unitary authorities should be empowered to plan, commission and monitor publicly funded schools in their areas, to address shortages of places and to intervene to turn around failing schools. Resources which currently go directly to academies and free schools from the Department for Education should be channelled through the existing Regional Commissioners for Education, who should be brought 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. School funding principles should be reformed to ensure that sufficient resources are made available to all schools such that all children have the opportunity to realise their potential, with additional funding for schools serving disadvantaged areas.
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. Discriminatory selection processes should be banned and all schools required to collaborate to prevent pupils from poorer homes becoming concentrated in particular schools.
Resources and Standards
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. 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 inequalities between different regions and communities. A specific priority should be tackling high teacher turnover in socially disadvantaged schools. With this aim, the Government should agree with the profession, and introduce, means of incentivising teachers to make a longer-term commitment to such schools.
Core areas of knowledge, that are essential for pupils when they enter the world of work and for building a modern economy, including 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 means to empower young people, to encourage them to develop their abilities and individuality, and to enrich their lives.
Measures should be taken to raise morale and professional standards in teaching by reviewing and guaranteeing the current Teachers Standards through the Chartered College of Teachers (which should be supported in its further development).
This should be done in conjunction with local authorities and the proposed regional educational authorities and should involve higher entry qualifications, more demanding teacher education, stage attainment targets and provision for enhanced career development opportunities and improved pay and conditions.
School inspectors should be put under the responsibility 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 authorities) have the resources and skills 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. Developing an enhanced role for head teachers and school governors should play a part in this. Mutual support between parents should also be promoted, focusing on preparing infants and children for school and helping all parents to play a constructive role in supporting learning and appropriate behaviour. An important element of this should involve empowering children to protect themselves in an informed way from threats involving dangerous drugs, sexual vulnerability and potentially abusive aspects of the internet.
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 “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, in another religion. This clearly discriminates against the majority 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 goverment in taking decisions on what does, and does not, constitute a legitimate religion which is not an appropriate role for politicians.
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 not be subjected to intrusive and potentially humiliating dress codes stipulating, for example, the wearing of ties or that girls should wear skirts rather than trousers.
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 traditions through the curriculum without the school being required to promote one system of belief above others.
The Government has recently taken welcome steps to strengthen the requirement for sex and relationships education in schools. Unfortunately, at the same time, it yielded to pressure to dilute this requirement in the case of religious schools, thus denying a group of children who may be in some respects most in need, their entitlement to advice they need to take informed decisions on issues which will shape their future lives. All schools should be required to provide impartial, evidence-based sex and relationships education for all pupils based on a framework agreed at the national level and taking account of the positive and negative aspects of engagement with social media.
Judged by many criteria, our universities are a huge success. At the end of the Sec0nd World War, there were 21 of them 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 currently a significant net recipient of EU research grants and attracts a large number of overseas students, who contribute £16 billion 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, it plays an important part in developing the skills and knowledge that the country needs. Third, it helps students to decide on their future careers and in the rational organisation of the workforce, by providing a certificate of knowledge, application and ability. And, fourth, it marks for many students an important staging post on the road to adulthood and autonomy by enabling them to leave home and build new networks of friends and acquaintances.
The first of these objectives appears to be largely achieved, with surveys indicating that most graduates are pleased that they 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. Reflecting this, the UK now ranks 16th out of 20 OECD countries in terms of the proportion of the population with technical qualifications, with a grave shortage of graduates in science, technology, engineering and medicine, which can only be made up through immigration.
At the same time, the mismatch between courses offered and the realities of the jobs market have led to a situation where up to a third of graduates end up taking non-graduate jobs. This impacts negatively on rational recruitment, 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 has ended up by distorting it.
The rise in the proportion of school leavers going on to post-18 education has made university funding a major issue. The Party does not believe that it would be fair or a proper use of resources for taxpayers to pay for university education for all students, poor or rich. This would divert resources from rebuilding schools and from assisting the 50% of school leavers, mainly from poorer households, who go straight into the world of work.
But it is also clear that the system of student loans, which introduced under Labour and entrenched under subsequent Governments has been a disaster. The system is opaque, ill-thought out, was introduced from the US for reasons of electoral expediency and to massage the public sector borrowing requirement, and was based on unjustified assumptions. Giving universities the right to determine the fees they charge (within a cap), has not as predicted led to a market based on fees, as all institutions have chosen to charge the maximum fee. While students 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, which now total some £118 billion.
And it is clear that the assumption that a high proportion of graduates would actually pay back their loans was wholly unrealistic, with the Office of Budget Responsibility estimating that only 31% of loans taken on by students matriculating in 2017-8 will be paid back – leaving £28 billion unaccounted for in the public accounts. 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, the funding of tuition 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 around the proposal for a reduction in the ceiling on fees for first degree courses to £4,000 with a requirement being placed on parents on higher incomes to pay a contribution of 75% of the fees upfront for children while they are under the age of 25.
The Party proposes that, as originally intended, tuition fees should be used to finance the cost of teaching, with the cost of research being covered by the Government and competitively tendered grants and contracts from national and international research programmes, not-for-profit and private sector sources. This would address the injustice of students being required to cover the cost of their own education and also to contribute to the cost of research, which is a long-term endeavour of benefit to the whole of society. This would end the anomoly of putting universities which primarily teach receiving income on the same basis as those which are heavily engaged in expensive research projects.
Maintenance grants should be reintroduced for students from lower income homes and provision made for the Government to subsidise the cost of tuition in areas of skills shortage and modest earnings such as nursing. The funding formula should also be revised to give greater encouragement to universities to offer courses that address skills gaps in the economy.
The higher education sector is now acutely aware of the need to actively promote equality of access for young people from different backgrounds, with clear evidence of significant differentials between the proportion of school students who go on to higher education from poorer homes and from certain ethnic groups. Moreover, students from privileged backgrounds continue to take a disproportionate share of places in elite universities and in areas of study which lead on to higher paid occupations.
Thus, according to the Education Statistics Authority, 25% of first year medical students in UK universities were from private schools, which account for only 7% of all pupils. At the same time, research by BMC Medicine shows that on average, students from non-selective schools perform better in medical examinations than those from private or grammar schools.
Decisions about where and what to study that young people take while still in their teens may shape the rest of their lives. Much greater efforts should be made to ensure that potential applicants receive comprehensive, impartial and comparable information about the universities and courses they are considering, including outcomes in terms of future employment and earnings. Increased tuition fees have had a particularly severe impact on enrollment to part-time courses, which have seen a sharp drop in student numbers. This problem should be addressed as a matter of urgency, as part-time study makes an important contribution to equality of opportunity and to maximising the nation’s human capital.
To increase the range of options for school leavers and improve access, a wider range of one-year starter courses and two-year basic degree courses should be introduced. Universities should be required to provide formal recognition of successful completion of each year of study through certificates and diplomas, which could be recognised by employers as proof of achievement at a lower level than full degrees.
SUMMARY OF PROPOSALS
- make high-quality nursery care available free or at an acceptable cost and provide free childcare for all children living in areas high levels of poverty;
- develop a national curriculum covering all schools encompassing language skills, numeracy, science, history, citizenship and ethics;
- transfer powers from the Secretary of State to democratic oversight involving teachers, education professionals, parents and elected representatives, by:
- empowering regional, county and unitary authorities to plan, commission and monitor publicly funded schools, to address shortages of places and to intervene to turn around failing schools;
- initially, channel resources which currently go to academies and free schools directly from the Department for Education through the existing Regional Commissioners for Education and bring them under local democratic oversight;
- thereafter, vest strategic responsibility for all publicly funded schools in elected regional education authorities with the resources to ensure effective management and supervision;
- require all schools and bodies involved in education to comply with the principles of freedom of information and to be publicly accountable for their use of taxpayers money;
- 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;
- reform school funding principles to provide for all children to have the opportunity to realise their potential by increasing funding for schools serving disadvantaged areas;
- end discriminatory selection processes and require all schools to collaborate to prevent pupils from poorer homes becoming concentrated in particular schools.
Resources and Standards
- provide immediate additional funding to reverse the threatened real terms cuts and ensure that in future resources take full account of changing demographic demands;
- tackle inequalities in funding between different regions and communities;
- support the development of a National Office for Educational Standards to promote evidence-based policy-making and learning from best practice;
- promote 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 emphasis on the role of head teachers and school governors ;
- support initiatives to promote the active engagement of parents in ensuring their children are ready for school and that they are equipped to support their learning and behaviour at school;
- raise morale and professional standards in teaching by supporting an increased role for the Chartered College of Teachers;
- review current Teachers Standards, and support higher entry qualifications, more demanding teacher education, stage attainment targets, provision for better pay and conditions, and enhanced career development opportunities.
Tolerance and Mutual Respect
- ensure that all parents can choose a secular alternative for the ethical component of their children’s education and require all publicly funded schools to make proper provision to meet this need;
- explore the case for a secular system of publicly funded education, as exists in France and the United States, to provide a strong foundation for tolerance, fairness and mutual respect in a society of diverse loyalties and beliefs;
- help students to acquire a balanced understanding of different religions, philosophies and cultural traditions through the curriculum without the school promoting one system of belief above the others;
- require all schools to provide broad-based sex and relationships education for all pupils based on a framework agreed at the national level.
Higher and Further Education
- fundamentally reform the system of tuition fees to end the situation where young people enter the world of work with heavy debts by capping the contribution of students under the age of 25 to their fees at £2,000 a year;
- provide for the state to fund all research activities in universities and reduce the ceiling for fees for first-degree courses from £9,450 to £4,000 a year and require better off parents to contribute 75% of the cost of their children’s fees for post-18 study or training;
- reintroduce maintenance grants for students from low-income families;
- promote the introduction of a wider range of one-year starter courses and two-year basic degree courses to improve access;
- encourage universities and colleges to provide formal recognition of successful completion of each year of study in a form which can be recognised by employers;
- take urgent steps to address the problem of the impact of tuition fees on enrollment in part-time post-18 education.