The People’s Parliament – Class and Education

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PeoplesParliamentThe People’s Parliament is a discussion series held in Parliament, hosted by John McDonnell MP with the aim of livening up, and providing political depth, to the debate in the run up to General Election next May.

On 19th November the People’s Parliament meeting was held under the title Re-thinking schooling: class & education. The meeting took place in Committee Room 10 of the House of Commons with about 80 people in attendance. The speakers were Diane Reay (Professor of Education at Cambridge University), Christine Blower (General Secretary NUT), James McAsh (Student activist – National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts) and Henry Stewart (Local Schools Network). The meeting was chaired by Michael Meacher MP.

Christine Blower said that it was not enough to have brilliant policies. We have to take those policies to as many people as possible. The next general election would, she argued, be critical for education. It is therefore vital to win every possible ally for progressive educational policies. This meant winning them for the idea that local authorities provide the natural democratic framework for schools. At the same time we should argue for improved democratic procedures.

The threat posed by the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) was described as pushing education systems round the globe towards deskilling teachers, excessive high-stakes testing regimes, performance related pay and generally treating parents/pupils as customers in an educational market. Sweden started the free school movement but are now having second thoughts about it. The number of unqualified teachers in Sweden’s free schools has now risen to 25%.

Polls have clearly shown massive public support for non-selective schools run within a local authority framework. It is up to all of us to press in every way we can for adoption of the policies summarised in the NUT Manifesto for 2015.

Listen to Christine Blower’s talk.

Diane Reay started by pointing out that expenditure per head in private schools is two and a half times greater than that in state schools. But the effect of our social class structure does not stop there. It is reproduced in various ways in the state sector and this is made possible by the selection policies of faith schools, academies and free schools. She questioned the idea that social mobility is a worthy objective for education by arguing that such mobility was, in effect, a way of recycling social inequality. And it is that inequality which is the inescapable backdrop to our educational problems but in terms of resources, selection and expectations. At present all the political parties accept this unequal distribution of resources even though what most people want is good local schools serving everyone in the community. The Labour Party should embrace this desire for a more equal and more democratic education system. Just tinkering with our unequal system will always leave the underlying problems untouched.

We should try to convince everyone concerned for education of the need for a lighter testing system. It needs to be generally known that the top performing countries use mixed-ability teaching and we must do the same. We must reduce the advantages of the private schools with respect to state schools and also reduce the inequalities between different types of school in the state sector. The curriculum needs to be modified so that it leaves room to show all students they are valued whatever their class background and stop working on the basis that only academic achievement can count as success while non-academic achievement is seen as failure. Schools must be relevant to the live of all children and that means developing high-status vocational programmes grounded in the realities of the current labour market.

Listen to Diane Reay’s talk

James McAsh made the case for free education in the HE sector. He said that this was not just because of the intolerable financial burden that it means for many students – important though this point is. In addition, he argued, the charging of fees cast the relation between students and the institutions of higher education as one of customers and purveyors of courses i.e. a marketised relationship. The market model is increasingly dominating every aspect of the HE system: markets for admissions; markets for funding; curriculum developments led by commercial interests. In all this he saw, like the previous speakers, the grip of neo-liberal thinking on the whole system and in the minds of politicians.

Listen to James McAsh’s talk.

Henry Stewart pointed out that claims for the superiority of academic schools in the secondary sector disappeared on analysis. In the primary sector they are actually worse than maintained schools. He also pointed out that privatisation was already taking place in our schools and added that Labour was partly to blame for this. He said that a school of which he is a governor had been told that it could only get money for Building Schools for the Future if it privatised its IT provision. It did so and the result was a disaster. Now the IT has been taken back in house again. We need a statement from the politicians, he said, making it clear that it would no longer be assumed that private is better and that we must stop handing over our public services to private contractors who have repeatedly failed to deliver.

Current pressures are driving the fun out of education and leave no room for cultivating a love of learning. We need to reject the exam factory approach and also to take some of the workload off teachers, an issue he said had been raised with Tristram Hunt who showed no interest in it. We need a vision for a new curriculum which enhances life for all and is not narrowly academic. He said that  wide support could be won for such a vision and that even bodies like the CBI were pushing for similar reforms. Henry Stewart ended by joining the other speakers in a call for a return of schools to a local authority framework.

Listen to Henry Stewart’s talk

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