There’s still a lot of work to do – but let’s hear it for the NES

There could well be at least a couple of years before another general election, certainly if the beleaguered and divided government has anything to do with it. And while Labour has committed itself to continue to campaign over the summer, there is an equally important job to do in the months and years ahead, which is to build on some of the bolder ideas to emerge during the election.

The crisis in school funding was at the heart of last June’s campaign but, as we see from concessions made by the government in the weeks since, and the re-appointment of the sensible and emollient Justine Greening as education secretary, the Tories now recognise that they urgently need to do something about the pay and conditions of public sector workers. Besides, it is highly unlikely that the next election, whenever it comes, will be fought on the same issues in the same way. Context is all.

All the more reason, then, to develop one of the most potentially significant proposals to be floated by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, that of a National Education Service (NES): the joining-up of disparate elements of education from nurseries through schools to universities and adult education, free at the point of use. Corbyn himself has trumpeted the idea since his election in 2015 but not much solid detail emerged during those two years; nor did it over the course of the election campaign itself, with commentators concentrating on the headline issues (the Labour plan to abolish tuition fees) or giving the entire Labour offer short shrift on the grounds that it was not radical enough.

Whether this last claim is fair (and I would argue both that it is and it isn’t) there is room for a much broader, bolder vision. During the Adonis-Gove years official ideas about ‘education, education,education’ have dangerously narrowed, with government increasingly focussed on the secondary years where it has trumpeted a diluted version of the grammar school/public school curriculum to be implemented by dangerously under-resourced state schools, harried professionals and, indeed, non-professionals. In higher education, the values of business have come to dominate and distort the business of learning to the benefit neither of students nor academics. More broadly, I also wonder whether progressives have become so desensitised by years of Gove and co. that they now self-censor even their own best hopes and dismiss out of hand this idea of a cradle-to-grave education system, animated by a richer, deeper purpose, to be run in a different way?

Revisiting the fine detail of the Labour party manifesto on education, there are lots of positive proposals – beyond the tuition fee plan that got everyone talking (and subsequently changed the political weather) – on the need for high-quality early years provision, proper school funding, re-investment in further education and apprenticeships but no real indication of the bigger picture, particularly the framework in which all this might be made possible, affordable and publicly appealing.

Yet talking these past weeks to senior figures in education, many hitherto sceptical of Labour, I was struck by how quietly impressed, even enthused, they were by the idea of an NES-style vision, particularly now Labour might be in a position to take these ideas into government. There has long been a feeling among the more progressive teachers and leaders that Labour has not had a distinct ‘take’ on education but has been too timidly reacting to, and reshaping, radical right ideas.

Certainly, there could not be a more favourable time for the development of a new vision – one that is, in the words of a senior leader, “rooted in the idea of ethical service with the re-professionalisation, and trust, of teachers at its heart.”

As yet another academy chain is criticised for alleged financial mismanagement, even Gove’s most enthusiastic supporters must now recognise that the market-driven policies of the last decade have pretty much run into the ground. Free schools and mass academisation are no longer considered the cure-all for social or educational inequality; parents are beginning to rebel against a narrow curriculum, too much testing and rogue school admissions systems; and there is unease about heads of multi-academy trusts earning two or three times more than the prime minister, while teachers’ pay has crawled up just 1%. More generally, there’s a feeling of a vacuum in authority and policymaking at the heart of government, particularly after the failure of May’s grammar school initiative.

For all this, we need a lot more detail about the structures that would underpin the NES. Interestingly, there is little talk from the Labour frontbench about a return to a seventies-style relationship between school and local authorities but the party might consider an intelligent remodelling of the “middle tier”, based on successful experiments like that in Hackney in London where the Learning Trust took over education services and turned around the troubled borough, and the council now holds together academies and maintained schools in a locally accountable frame. At the same time, some of the famed freedoms of academies and free schools, which so often give them a dodgy advantage in the chaotic schools market, should be removed. And given the multiplicity of confusing labels, it is not time to call all schools ‘schools’ and give them the same rights and freedoms?

Add to this, the need for more intelligent school accountability ( further reform of Ofsted basically), a coherent system of initial teacher education, curriculum, qualifications and assessment, and a fresh discussion on the character of mass higher education in the mid-21st century.

It’s a massive job and not one that can be completely achieved while in opposition. Government, should it come, will provide its own drivers, confidence, resources, personnel and, almost certainly, new pressures. At the same time, Labour needs to show sensitivity to a teaching profession that is exhausted by constant change and little real support, in terms of pay, workload and official rhetoric.

But what the tuition fees master stroke showed is that the party recognises, for the first time since 1997, that education can only be a vote winner if it connects with popular aspiration and discontent, and that the voter facing ‘offer’ has to concentrate, not on indigestible detail about structures, but on what really matters to parents and teachers and school leaders, whether that be more music, drama and art in our schools (something on which the shadow education secretary and the new chief inspector of schools broadly agree), sabbaticals for teachers or the restoration of adult education.

The NES framework also offers Labour a unique chance to forge a genuinely comprehensive vision. One of the lessons of a country such as Finland is that high-quality non-selective education not only transcends political divides but can unite and even come to define a nation.

Again, the moment could not be more propitious. Significant sections of the centre-right are now implacably opposed to the 11-plus, and last month’s Sutton Trust survey on perceptions of social mobility shows that the public supports high-quality teaching in comprehensives (not a return to grammars) as the best way forward to both bridge gaps between better-off and disadvantaged children, and to foster the talents of the academically able.

But Labour needs more vigorously to trumpet comprehensive success – drawing on the example of individual schools as well as those countries, such as Finland and Canada, that deliver well for all – and to find the courage to back plans to phase out the damaging selection that remains in a quarter of all education authorities.

If Labour now wishes to make the NES a project that draws in widespread support from beyond the party, it should initiate conversations with the numerous groups and individuals with the expertise and enthusiasm to help. Part of its future success will depend on to what degree it can build a consensus around its proposed reforms within those parts of the profession and the educational world that are broadly well disposed towards the party (of course, many will remain implacably hostile) as well as enthuse the public with its ideas.

Given the leadership’s evident talent for campaigning, why not a series of meetings in every big city and town (and yes those all important marginal seats) around the country? These could ask the public to both celebrate the many brilliant aspects of our state system and offer their own ideas for reform.

NES roadshow anyone?

This is a revised and expanded version of a piece that first appeared in The Guardian on July 18th.