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A new comprehensive vision for education

The three parties are united behind a failed education consensus. We need a new system that promotes cooperation, not competition.

Pupils wait for school buses in the playground. Photograph: Getty Images.

Coalitions don’t just have to be about government – they can be about ideas too. What is perplexing about British politics is that you find groups in each of the main parties saying pretty much the same thing. Nowhere is this more true than education. A coalition, predating the general election of 2010, dominates British education. No one voted for it or sanctioned it, and I suspect few want it. It is a coalition born of the 1980s and today it is represented by Michael Gove, Andrew Adonis and David Laws. It needs to be understood and trumped by a more radical, progressive and hopeful education coalition.

The puzzle of this cross-party coalition of ideology finds clarity in its evidential failure. The power of the coalition is that it served the dominant political economy of neo-liberalism. People would be shaped on a learn-to-earn consumer treadmill, thus enabling them to compete and shop in a global economy. Aspiration would be narrowly defined and individually attained. If you could climb the ladder and if you wanted to climb it badly enough, then the world was yours. Bad luck was just another way of saying you weren’t trying hard enough. But this meritocratic promise is fast breaking down. Today, even if you learn hard, work harder and play by the rules there is no guarantee of success. Instead, a generation is being laid to waste because, as we now all know, "there is a flaw in the model". The desire industry speeds up the turning of wants into needs – but this flawed economy is destroying the ability to pay. Given this rupture between the neo-liberal promise and the lived reality of millions of children and their parents – what now is the purpose of education? Indeed, why go to school?

The answer starts with Einstein who warned us "we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them". Next comes the recognition that we cannot view education in isolation to the economic, social and political culture in which the system fits. As such, education plays an almost unique role, not just a big part of the means by which society reproduces itself, but a platform from which society can actually transform itself. Thus, we have to understand education as a paradoxical entity, as both in-and-against the still dominant discourse of free market ideology. But given the objective failure of neo-liberalism and, therefore, of the educational consensus that flowed to it and from it, the onus must now be to come up with alternative – a new consensus for education in a good society.  

That of course will not be easy, although it is reassuring to remember that the majority always started out as a minority and that only from small acorns do great oaks grow. And let’s build on that thought by briefly stating what we don’t think education should be about and, therefore, how it must not be run. If it’s not about the production of addicted consumers, then the basis of educational production should not be consumerised or marketised. Likewise, if we think that everyone who has a stake in the education system should also have a voice in the creation of the education system then we can kick largely into touch the old bureaucratic model of the mid decades of the last century. As Simon Jenkins has written recently, "Britain’s economy is in a mess not for a lack of maths but for a lack of ethics and common sense. Being top of the world in science did not save the Soviet Union from collapse … the academic terrorism of tests and league tables has made Gradgrinds rote-learning seem almost liberal".  While heads, teachers and inspectors tick the boxes of the standards regime there is a growing hole in the heart of our education system – a hole in which empathy, compassion, responsibility, creativity and the enduring and genuine identity formation of the young people of our country is squeezed out.

Once we have dispensed with the market and the target, or to put it another way, the Soviet Union and G4S, as the models for educational production where does that leave us? Well that depends on what we think education is for. The work and thinking of the Compass Education Group has resulted in a rather simple, and dare I say, rather beautiful rationale for the billions we pump into education, and it is this: our education system is there to help us learn to live and collaborate together. It is the prime collective means by which we are socialised. And as such, its focus is relational, emotional and human. And if, as they should be, means and ends are to be united, then the way our education system functions should be relational, emotional and human. This "learning to live together" is the most precious gift we can bestow on young people. The art of life is to know how to live it with others. If, at the most basic, our core belief is that we should treat others as we would have them treat us, then our schooling system must, above all, teach us exactly that.  

Of course, we have to burden this fragile but wonderful structure with more capability and qualifications needs but if the essence is to produce citizens, rather than consumers, or their flip side, worker ants, then what is the model of a new educational consensus?  We cannot go on as we are, neither can we go back to some 1960s comprehensive nirvana. Instead, we are going to have to explore a new comprehensive vision – it will be challenging and difficult.

The focus for this new comprehensive vision will not be the solitary school, but the local area. The challenge of the future is how schools and local institutions collaborate to ensure everyone learns about their life in common and that through a cooperative local system all maximise their potential and their capabilities. The building block will be the formation of local stakeholders Educational Boards that could be indirectly or directly elected. They must include parents in the recognition that we cannot outsource the socialization of our children to either the market or the bureaucracy.  If we do then our children will suffer. Parents, alongside professionals, local politicians, the community, business and other interests, have to play a role in shaping and determining local collaboration, not least the localisation of inspection and standards. And instead of league tables that can be gamed, local democratic accountability would provide a much more effective spur for continuous improvement and innovation.

Such a democratic educationalism cannot just be argued for on intrinsic reasons alone but the instrumental case too - we get better outcomes through democratic participation and engagement than we do from the machine or the market. Trusting people is better than either imposing decisions on them or forcing them to compete. Their buy-in and the co-production of services between users and workers locks in organic initiative and enterprise. These ideas are going with the flow of economic development, even in a period of neo-liberalism – more networked, more localised and more innovation based.  

Seen in the global context of a growing relevance of relational and democratic ideas, all of a sudden it becomes our school and our area and our commitment to both improves outputs in ways competition and instruction never can.  Democracy is not easy or quick, but is the only way to come up with solutions that are embedded and enduring. And such a move would break the strange-hold of Whitehall – a blow not just to the control freaks, but also the neo-liberals. The free market always requires a strong state to usher in privatisation.

Of course, central government will have a role, not least in funding. And professionalism must be recognised, encouraged, respected and rewarded. As Melissa Benn wrote recently, "for Adonis and Gove all that stands in the way of a child on free schools meals and King's College Cambridge is a militant, clock watching member of the NUT". A good education cannot be built with teachers as the enemy but, rather, along with parents and other stakeholders, as one of the prime forces to improve performance.

This new comprehensive vision will have to be supported by more specific educational strategies – for example, it should be underpinned by a common curriculum and a unified qualifications framework. This means not a divide and conquer Bacc of academic and technical varieties, but a unified Bacc that dusts down the Tomlinson report, which recommended the end of the academic divide and radically updates it. Finally, further and higher education need to be merged around a new educational entitlement that ends any notion of up-front fees and charges. Such a comprehensive and unified structure can be the only basis of a truly one nation politics. Indeed, I think we say that one nation starts in the classroom.

Conversely, government should do nothing to support division and competition within the education system, anything that tears people apart,  rather that drives them together. Private schools should no longer receive tax breaks. Andrew Adonis’s aspiration for private schools to back academies and free schools to level up opportunities and standards is at best a naïve category error which fails to recognise the reason why parents pay thousands in fees each year – to buy an advantage over the state system. As charitable status must go, so the 11-plus must be phased out.

A new comprehensive vision and new education coalition will not emerge solely from Labour because it paved the way for much of the Gove agenda. What we are witnessing is its logical conclusion. Instead, the braver elements of the Labour Party must make common cause with social liberals, parents, localists, businesses, vocationalists, the teaching unions and other professional groups to develop, flesh out and popularise this new vision. We can learn from the best practice in Canada and Finland, but we must build a distinctly English model of this new vision. Time is of the essence.

The goal of our education system cannot be to produce more hedge fund managers that carve up the country in their interest, divide the few from the many and then wreck everything we hold dear. The failure of that economic system means the end of the education system that flowed from it. It is time for something new and something better.  

The Compass Education Group's conference to discuss and debate "a new comprehensive vision" is on 8 December at the TUC in London. Speakers include Jon Cruddas MP, who is chairing Labour’s Policy Review and Mary Bousted from the ATL

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers