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.
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 against almost all of our international competitors. According to studies by the OECD, the UK consistently comes bottom or sec0ond to bottom (after the US) out of 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 numeracy 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. Outcomes will need to improve damatically if young people in Britain are to hold their own.
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 management of many schools from local authorities to commercial and religious organisations. This agenda 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.
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 effective in addressing educational disadvantage either in the UK or in Sweden, where similar experiments have been conducted.
Academisation has 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 the problems facing our schools are to be resolved, far-reaching changes will be needed.
The Radical Party Proposes:
- A Reformed Schools System
- Resources and Standards
- Tolerance and Mutual Respect
A Reformed Schools System
The Radical Party believes that powers should be progressively transferred from the Secretary of State to elected local representatives, head teachers and teaching professionals and parents, backed up with specialist knowledge and experience. Regional, county and unitary authorities should be given the powers and the resources to plan, commission and monitor publicly funded schools in their areas effectively, to address shortages of places and to intervene to turn around failing schools.
Resources which currently go directly to academies and free schools in England 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 (including all academies) 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. As a result of cuts in their budgets, local authorities are being forced to reduce funding for pupils with Special Educational Needs in many parts of the country, a policy which is both cruel and short-sighted. The highest priority should be given to restoring funding for professional support for this group of particularly vulnerable young people.
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 reduce the extent to which pupils from poorer homes are 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, further increasing workloads and worsening the already unacceptable level of strain on teachers. 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) through the introduction of a real national curriculum. 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 them and encourage them to develop their own abilities and individuality, and 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.
The Party considers that school inspectors should remain a national responsibity under Ofsted with the emphasis on school change and development. Steps should be taken to make sure that local education authorities (and once they are established, 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, to share best practice and to encourage 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 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.
The Radical Party calls for the Office of Educational Standards in Education (Ofsted) to be reinforced and restructured to allow it to play an important role in promoting evidence-based policy making and learning from best practice in this country and abroad without compromising its existing role in inspecting schools and teacher training.
Any serious attempt to raise educational standards must be informed by a properly resourced system of monitoring and evaluation. Since 2010, the resources available to Ofsted have been severely cut. While failing schools are inspected regularly until they achieve Good or Excellent status, schools rated Good or Excellent are now only inspected every ten years, making it possible for schools whose standards have declined to continue to go unreported for many years.
Asa result, parents are denied information they need if they are to make informed choices about their children’s education, school heads, governors and managers are not alerted to emerging problems and the Government and the public are given a picture of progress which increasingly fails to reflect the true situation. To address this problem, regular inspections for Good and Excellent schools should be reintroduced and real terms funding for Ofsted restored, as a matter of urgency, to the level which applied prior to the 2010 election.
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.
Research published by the National Secular Society in December 2018 showed that some 50,000 families live in areas where the three closest primary schools are faith schools and up to a further 136,000 in areas where two out of three of the nearest primary schools are, with faith schools accounting for 53% of all primary schools in rural areas. Almost 8,000 children in September 2018 were allocated to faith schools against their parents’ first choice wishes.
The law allow parents to withdraw their children from religious education but many do not take advantage of this right, because they lack self-confidence, want their children’s education to have an ethical component and no non-religious option is provided, or because they do not want them to be singled out. 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 and also involves politicians taking decisions on what does, and does not, constitute a legitimate religion, which, arguably, is not an appropriate function for them to assume in a country which claims to be a democracy.
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.
SUMMARY OF PROPOSALS
Structure and Accountability
- transfer powers from private sector academy and free school managers to democratic oversight involving elected local and regional representatives, teachers, education professionals and parents;
- empower 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 tackle the tendancy for pupils from poorer homes to become concentrated in particular schools.
Resources and Standards
- develop a national curriculum covering all schools encompassing language skills, numeracy, science, history, citizenship and ethics;
- 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, reduced teacher workloads, 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.