Making Labour’s National Education Service fit for purpose

21 June 2017

THE UNDERFUNDING of childcare programmes, the privatisation of secondary education (via the ever-expanding programme of unaccountable and selective academies and “free” schools) and the tripling of university tuition fees have all been designed to give children form wealthy middle class families a head start in life.

Add to this the fact that wages and conditions for unskilled and low-skilled jobs have been squeezed, while the NHS and social housing have been starved of funds, and it is easy to see that the Tories intend to pass ingrained poverty on from one generation to the next.

The Labour Party’s manifesto proposals for young people, such as the abolition of tuition fees and zero hour contracts, were credited with the youth surge that contributed to the party’s success in the General Election.

However, the National Education Service, billed as a new pillar of a welfare state fit for the 21st century, was seriously underpowered in Labour’s manifesto.

For the Many not the Few

Labour’s manifesto, For the Many not the Few, contains a sizeable and quite detailed section on the setting up of a new National Education Service (NES). Its purpose is “to make lifelong learning a reality by giving everyone the opportunity to access education throughout their lives”.

Unlike the Tories’ fake reforms, which had hidden costs to be paid for by the service user, the NES would “move towards cradle-to-grave learning that is free at the point of use”.

Due to underfunding, many childcare centres have closed and parents are unable to even take up their 30 hours of free entitlement. Labour would ensure the cash was there for Sure Start to succeed and free childcare would be extended to all two year-olds and some one year-olds. Meanwhile maternity pay would be extended to a whole year.

Primary school classes would be capped at 30 children maximum and all pupils would receive a free dinner so that never again would attainment be held back by undernourishment. Just making private schools like Eton and Harrow pay VAT like the rest of us would finance the dinners.

There would be a moratorium on new academies and free schools. Instead, community schools would be able to open under local authority control, so provision could be planned democratically with free and equal access for all our children.

Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto promised that the recently announced new funding formula, which cut an average of £400 per pupil from schools and punished inner city schools most harshly, would be scrapped. “A fairer funding formula that leaves no school worse off” would replace it.

Theresa May’s cherished grammar schools would also bite the dust, as the manifesto promised no return to the “secondary moderns” that condemned millions of working class children to a second class education. Councils would implement “joined-up admissions policies across local schools” and provide resources to narrow the attainment gaps between ethnic groups, social classes and those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Budgets and powers for council education services would in turn be restored so that once again schools could be brought back into a “family”, helping each other by sharing resources and knowledge. The pay cap, which has been responsible for the erosion of teachers’ and support staff pay over the past decade (and a dearth of new teachers willing to stay in the profession), would be abolished.

One of the Tories’ crimes has been to slash funding for local further education colleges, forcing them to close courses and to merge across wide areas, at a time when the school leaving age has been raised to 18. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party would reverse this trend and bring back the Educational Maintenance Allowance, which enabled students from poorer backgrounds to stay in full-time education.

Labour want to double the number of apprenticeships and make sure every one leads to a “real job”. The trade unions would have a role in quality control over the schemes. Further and adult education courses, including English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL), would be free.

The £9,000 per year tuition fees that prevent many working class youth from even considering going to university would also be abolished, not just for new students but also for those already there. The average graduate leaves university £44,000 in debt; Labour want them to start their working life on a level playing field.

Right wing backlash

Although For the Many not the Few was signed off unanimously by the party’s top brass a few weeks before the election, many of its policies are not universally popular among right wing MPs, councillors and party administrators.

For a start, taken as a whole, they signal not only a break from the Tory policies of the last seven years, but also a rupture with the education policies introduced under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

So we can expect these proposals to open up a hotly contested debate within the Labour Party and the trade unions. Openly or covertly, supporters of Tony Blair’s academisation drive will try and force these progressive measures off the agenda now that the election is over.

Just before the election, Richard Angell, director of the Blairite Progress faction, was quick to accuse Jeremy of “ignoring” Theresa May’s grammar school policy by daring to attack academies. He claimed that the reason May’s proposals are “met with indifference from voters is because of [their gratitude for] Labour’s academy programme”. Incredulously he went on to assert that, “vast improvement in state schools… has reduced the demand of middle-class parents across the country for grammar schools or private providers. This is how to truly defend the ‘comprehensive school ethos’ in state schools.”

In fact Jeremy didn’t ignore, but attacked May, both in the Commons and during the election, calling her proposals “segregation for the few”. But the reason why the Tories so enthusiastically pressed on with Blair’s academy programme, complementing it with their free schools, was precisely to undermine the comprehensive education system.

Now most state secondary schools are academies. But rather than embrace the “comprehensive ethos”, these schools that once worked together under the control of local authorities now compete with each other and answer only to central government… and to their private owners.

The Tories played on parents’ concerns that “distant” local authorities were unresponsive to their needs, although chronic underfunding was the main reason behind their irresponsible negligence. Instead massive corporations, like Ark, Harris and Oasis, now have a monopoly of schools in various areas, and these bureaucratic monstrosities ultimately care only about results and making money for their overpaid and often corrupt principals and CEOs.

Neither have these academies raised standards; rather they have re-introduced selection criteria and they have dangerously been left at the mercy of profiteers and “faith bodies” with no educational expertise. They can organise their own curriculum and hire teachers with or without qualifications, which undermines the pay and conditions of teachers. It truly represents the privatisation of education and the end of local accountability.

Jeremy Corbyn has rightly condemned Tory academy plans as “asset stripping”. The Tories have now dropped the compulsory plan for all schools to become academies and may be obliged to shelve grammar schools. That’s real opposition.

Fighting for the NES

Borrowing its slogan, “from cradle to grave”, and two-thirds of its name from the NHS, the National Education Service appeals to millions because it offers a vision of what could be.

But while the current proposals for the NES represent a big a step forward, and must be defended at all costs against the Labour right, now that the election is over (for the time being) there remains the need to strengthen them and develop them towards a fully comprehensive education system.

The manifesto may call free schools and academies “inefficient” and grammar schools “a vanity project”, but it does not call for the return of them all to local authorities. If this were done, then we could truly halt selection and dramatically turn the NES into a fully comprehensive education system.

This should include the nationalisation, without compensation, of all private schools as well. Their assets, worth hundreds of millions, should be shared equally with schools serving students from families with poorer and average incomes.

We must have a publicly run education system, free from marketisation and profiteers, but free to all “from cradle to grave”. This will mean significant funding, as will protecting the NHS and other Corbyn reforms. Whether a few percentage points on corporation tax and a bit of VAT for the rich are sufficient is dubious. Recovering avoided and evaded business taxes will help, but the full scale of this will only be uncovered when workers open the books of the monopolies and their owners and reveal the real sums.

It may survive for a few years but when an economic crisis hits, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s fiscal golden rule (to borrow only for investment and infrastructure) would come into conflict with the needs of an education system that is vital in the fight against poverty and inequality.

A serious plan for education, no less than the NHS, needs massive taxes on the rich, needs to be part of a strategic plan for re-nationalisation without compensation, to even begin the task of altering the balance between an austerity-ravaged working class and an increasingly rich and arrogant capitalist class.

We must ensure this time round that this does not simply mean bureaucratic local authority control from above, but control from below. All schools should be democratically run by and under the control of teachers, parents and school students. The curriculum needs to become an issue for democratic debate.

Given the enthusiasm for Corbyn shown by young people during campaigning, we need to empower them in any new system. Education workers and their unions must be central in terms of industrial action and in mobilising communities in defence of our education system and in developing a socialist plan for a left Labour government.

A Corbyn-led Labour government trying to implement such proposals would face sabotage from the capitalists, the bond markets and the stock exchanges. The Establishment would deploy the full force of its media, its security forces and its judiciary to wreck any attempt at serious reforms.

Another election may come soon, although the Tories certainly do not want one, which is why we need to build a campaign for Labour’s vision of the NES now. Indeed building such a movement on the campuses and in the schools, and linking it to the unions, like the NUT/NEU and the UCU, which may strike in the autumn, could rock this weak government and stop the Tory attacks in their tracks.

At a time when Theresa May has promised a new generation of grammar schools and a more explicit return to selection, when the delivery of education is blighted by underfunding, assessment failures, recruitment and retention problems of overworked and underpaid teachers, not to mention the privatisation of our comprehensive system, Labour’s programme of reforms could link the resistance to a political movement to abolish the last vestiges of privilege and profit from our education system.

And such a movement could not only begin to implement the NES, but go further, warning the capitalists that any sabotage on their part would result in more extreme measures on ours. Whenever there’s a clash, we say: people not profit.

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