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Requires Improvement

RI – Introduction

The central assertion of this series of pieces is that the system of education in England ‘requires improvement’. That language, co-opted from the language of Ofsted inspections and reports, is central to the argument: the choice to marketise and privatise the education system, and the establishment of means of surveillance and control typified entirely by Ofsted, is entirely the problem. The tools and apparatus which support the current neoliberal arrangements make life worse, not better, for the most disadvantaged.

This is not an argument which disparages teachers. Far from it: the argument, broadly, is that the political class has failed to create the necessary conditions in which the teaching profession’s efforts can best result in successful children and young people. This is also certainly not an argument which disparages those children and young people themselves. Instead, it argues that those who would most benefit from, and who would be most easily reached by, systemic improvement, are those that the current system ignores. It is also not a defeatist argument. Inherent in the ‘requires improvement’ phrasing is the idea that things can get better.

Nigel Lawson said “genuine educational reform is a particularly unattractive prospect for any government… It upsets all those with a vested interest … [but the benefits] will not become apparent within the lifetime of even the longest lived administration.”[1] He was, and remains, right. This truth explains the shoddy nature of some policy work in this field, with short-sighted politicians chasing electoral gains or personal political capital. That said, there have been numerous instances of politicians brave enough to do what was right, even when that was difficult, and when the incentives to do so were moral and long-term rather than tangible and immediate. In short – the Labour party need to aspire to good policy rather than settling for simply good politics.

Before improvements can be made to the system, a full understanding of why that system is as it is must be secured. My contention is that Thatcher’s 1988 reforms undid the post-war consensus, dismantled the welfare state, and set English state education off in an entirely different direction[2], pursuing:

  • A fragmented sector, with unclear and unaccountable control mechanisms
  • Market logics and quasi-privatisation, with the undue practices resultant from both
  • Competition over collaboration, divorced from the reality of the human condition
  • A system of selection, absent any public account made for such a system

The New Labour government, the coalition government, and the subsequent Conservative governments have not deviated in any particularly principled terms from the 1988 Education Reform Act. This marked the turning point where the post-war consensus was rejected, and defines the system we currently face. Whilst we should be proud of the Blair years and the work done on reducing child-poverty[3], we need to be constructively critical of that project’s failure to rigorously challenge the paradigm shift of Thatcherism.

Before improvements can be made to the system, a proper diagnosis of its present short-comings is essential. This will make up subsequent pieces. There will be crossover between these loose groupings, but the failures highlighted cover:

  • Poor outcomes internationally and internally
  • A failure to prepare children and young people for their adult lives – as workers, and as citizens
  • Insufficient social cohesion and integration
  • Poor health and well-being for children, young people, and adults

In its most condensed form, the argument is that education should create a population which is knowledgeable, skilful, and happy. The current arrangements are failing to deliver.

Before improvements can be made to the system, policy proposals need to be carefully considered with regards to moral purpose and practical implementation. Following pieces will make such proposals.

This not an argument for the return to some fictionalised and romanticised halcyon days. Rehashing political debates from the 1970s and 1980s serves no purpose. Rebecca Long-Bailey’s calls for a return of all schools to local authority control were unconstructive and backwards-facing. We need to accept the architecture of the school-system, and harness it to work more effectively.

Education is a public good, communally owned. It has been, despite this relatively non-contentious declaration, surrendered to market logics and corporate purposes. It has been atomised, individualised, and is conceptually driven by competition. It is a neoliberal project, controlled with the tools of New Public Management. The logics of markets, the approaches of business, and the interests of private capital – not one of these is an appropriate mechanism for handling public goods and services. Instead, we need to consider how we can create a system which is responsive to need and democratically managed, and which situates control in the community.

Schools, colleges and universities are a vital part of the civic ecology in England, and there is need for a properly social democratic advocacy of them better fulfilling their potential roles in a highly functional society. This series of posts aims at attempting such an advocacy.


[1] The View From Number 11: Memoirs of a Tory Radical; Nigel Lawson; Biteback Publishing; 2011

[2] Coalition Education Policy: Thatcherism’s Long Shadow; H. Stevenson; FORUM 53; 2011

[3] Labour’s Record on Poverty and Inequality; Institute for Fiscal Studies; Labour’s record on poverty and inequality – Institute For Fiscal Studies – IFS; 2013

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