Reclaiming Our Education System – activist and educators come together with the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs


“Britain now has some of the largest primary school class sizes in Europe and the largest secondary school classes since records began, and spends a lower than average proportion of its GDP on education.”

By Ben Hayes

In response to the deep crisis in Education, driven by Tory-led privatisation, marketisation and chronic under-funding, the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs held a special policy seminar: Reclaiming Our Education System on May 23rd.

The seminar, chaired by Labour Peer Christine Blower, former General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers (now part of the National Education Union), brought together a range of labour movement perspectives to discuss the urgent need for a new approach to education and the kind of alternative model needed.

You can read the report back, listen to the event on the Arise Festival podcast or watch it below:

Daniel Kebede, General Secretary Designate of the National Education Union (NEU), welcomed aspects of Labour’s National Policy Forum (NPF) proposals, such as investing in thousands of new teachers and reforming the school investigation process, but warned that the party needed to “grasp the scale of the change needed”: with funding levels lower now than in 2010 and child poverty levels higher. Noting that Britain now has some of the largest primary school class sizes in Europe and the largest secondary school classes since records began, and spends a lower than average proportion of its GDP on education, Kebede outlined the severity of the crisis of retention in the sector.

The NEU’s survey of over 18,000 members found that 16% of teachers plan to leave the profession by 2025, and as many as 41% plan to do so by 2030 – as well as greater funding, he argued, a “fundamental cultural change” is in order. Conceding his contribution, he highlighted the work of the union born in terms of organising its own membership and engaging with parents and wider communities- and what an asset this can be to a party committed to implementing their policies.

University and College Union (UCU) President Janet Farrar focused on the state of post-16 education, with employers’ body the Association of Colleges forced to acknowledge that further education faced a “staffing crisis” following more than a decade of austerity and increased marketisation – pay is now 35% lower in real terms compared to 2009 and staff are often on casualised contracts. Noting that this has left many feeling undervalued, she called for members to be seen not as “disposable assets”, but instead “the cornerstone of the sector”.

Farrar raised the UCU’s Charter for Professional Respect in Further Education, and emphasised the important of improved pay, reduced workloads, and enhanced role for unions with collaborative decision-making processes: “staff can’t be an afterthought”. Additionally, she urged the next government to reverse cuts to funding for applied education, arts and humanities courses, go for a “bold rethink” on financing away from a model which is “broken and based on mountains of student debt”, and raised the changes seen under the devolved Welsh Labour administration as an example of steps being taken in the right direction.

General Secretary of the Socialist Educational Association (Labour’s affiliated socialist society for education) James Whiting discussed having seen teachers being pushed away from their roles by a focus on SATs at the expense of a more rounded vision for what schools should be providing to children. Viewing the current situation as a product of “both material conditions and ideology”, he discussed the significance of the “coup” led during Michael Gove’s tenure as Education Secretary to the “test, test, test” approach that has taken over in recent years, with a lack of flexibility in teaching methods permitted.

Echoing Kebede’s assessment of the NPF document as containing some welcome steps but needing to go significantly further, Whiting raised the SEA’s Manifesto for Education as a guide for the kind of policies Labour should be championing: including an end to tuition fees, abolishing SATs and the reversal of marketisation. He also stressed the importance of school structures (noting that the Tories have clearly recognised their significance), raiding the demand for local democratic accountability: “it’s time to liberate teachers from the yolk of Ofsted and the dead hand of academy trusts.”

Ian Mearns MP, a member of the Education Select Committee, opened by reflecting on his experience serving as a school governor over four decades – noting that, at their best, schools “can be an oasis of calm in chaotic times for children”. When it came to addressing the education system nationally, however, he acknowledged that the government have created a “bad place to start.” Listing examples such as a lack of professionals in provision for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND); a mental health crisis amongst school students and “fractured and inadequate services to stress this”; a “merry go round” of Education Secretaries; “smoke and mirrors” from the government on funding; early years and youth services “eradicated’; and an Ofsted Chair found unfit for the position by the select committee.

Mearns offered his support to education unions involved in ongoing disputes: “those on strike are not only defending their living standards but principle of state education”. He also endorsed the SEA’s Manifesto document, encouraging campaigners to “keep putting pressure on” for “positive policies backed by resources… which can help build a free, comprehensive, accountable, democratic and ambitious education system that is not just about producing next generation of the the labour market but developing well-rounded and educated human beings.”

Young Labour Chair Nabeela Mowlana noted that the student movement has often been among early proponents of bold policies which subsequently enjoy majority support – such as the establishment of a National Health Service, peace and dialogue in Ireland, and the end of apartheid in South Africa. Arguing that the “experiment of fees has failed” and the policy has proved “bad for both students and staff,” she called for a “fundamental rethink” on education policy away from students being seen as “consumers to be exploited” (not only in relation to fees but areas such as housing).

Mowlana noted that large numbers of young people who experienced studying during the pandemic (and the fiasco around exam results) will be of voting age come the next general election, and highlighted how many students were motivated to campaign for Labour’s 2017 manifesto, with its commitment to free education – urging the party to take note of the scale of opposition towards proposals to abandon this policy from a wide range of Labour clubs across the country. Concluding her contribution, she pledged Young Labour’s continuing support for industrial action by education unions and encouraged members to join their local picket lines.

Questions from those joining the seminar covered topics including ensuring democratically accountable schools, the future of adult education, reversing the trend towards commodification, putting SEND funding on the political agenda, breaking with the false choice on fees and funding, and the single education policy that panelists would implement given the opportunity.

Daniel Kebede pointed to the closure of schools and selling of their buildings as evidence that academies had done the exact opposite of offering greater choice (as originally promised), and cited the experience of the pandemic as demonstrating the vital role of local authorities. Outlining the ultimate goal of a new Education Act to shift Britain’s education model towards later starting ages and stronger early years provision, lower class sizes, and increased funding for staff, he urged the next government to address the crisis of recruitment and retention as a matter of urgency.

Arguing that “we shouldn’t be afraid to champion the joy of learning”, Janet Farrar called for greater government support for adult education – noting that staff delivering it were amongst the lowest paid and most casualised in the sector. She also emphasised the importance of reversing cuts to devolved education funding and the scrapping of BTEC courses.

James Whiting outlined some of the ways in which “neoliberalism is reducing children and staff to commodities”- such as the “inbuilt failure” of “leveling down” via grade rationing, the use of “ripoff recruitment agencies” and increased casualisation through temporary contracts. Addressing ways in which stronger democratic accountability for schools could be brought about, he called for local forums to help the voices of communities be heard.

Ian Mearns highlighted the £4 billion shortfall for SEND funding – describing proposals from the government to address it as “inadequate” and concluding that “children are being let down”. He also criticised the introduction of academies under the last Labour government, noting that they were based on the charter school model of the US- where the most successful state for education, Massachusetts, has placed a limit of 8% on them. Mearns ended by calling on the next government to redraft the curriculum in order to make it “relevant and inclusive for all pupils”.

Nabeela Mowlana made the case that investment in education is “ultimately a matter of priorities”, and important to making progress on numerous other policy areas (e.g. helping to develop technology which can address the threat of climate change). Addressing what should be at the heart of the education policy of the next manifesto, she called for a programme of “demarketisation across the sector” in order to fundamentally shift the ethos of our education system away from a failing consumerist model.

Closing the event, Christine Blower thanked all panelists and attendees, and raised the campaigning work of the NEU on school funding at the 2017 election: “education can be a vote-winner.”

Featured image: Pay Up! Save Our Schools banner on the national day of action on March 15th, 2023. Photo credit: NEU/Twitter

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