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21 July 2014

Why we need whole-person education

Long-term thinking in education policy is vital to the way we reform our political economy.

By Dan Holden

The idea of “predistribution” is instantly associated with wonkishness gone too far. It’s an ugly and overly politicised name for what is a pretty sensible and progressive set of ideas that the left should be utilising. Along with early intervention and social mobility it represents a commitment to long-term politics made real in policies that empower people from an early age to take control of their lives and tackle the excesses of inequality before they even occur. After the departure of Michael Gove from the Department for Education, now is the perfect time to talk about how education can be reclaimed as a political and social force that can achieve just that again.

The father of predistribiution, Jacob Hacker, describes it as being about a “more equal distribution of economic power and rewards even before government collects taxes or pays out benefits”. In terms of action that can be taken by the government before taxes and benefits, aka in the early years of life, education is a huge part of government’s responsibilities and its policy opportunities.

Patrick Diamond, in an essay for the Policy Network, analyses the relationship that predistribution has with education, arguing that for a realistic enacting of predistribution ideals to occur there must be a change in education policy (investment in human and social capital alongside redistribution).

Under New Labour the UK’s education system enjoyed a large increase in spending, but it was not enough to tackle the inequalities created by a globalised economy and the changes of the twenty first century. The state of inequality in our school systems at the moment is testament to this fact. IPPR’s Condition of Britain report said that “social class inequalities in education remain high” and reports published by Demos earlier this year highlight the fact that income inequality, particularly in an age of food banks, is starkly reflected in the educational attainment at school of children from different social backgrounds. The impact of inequality on education helps create what is known as the “Great Gatsby Curve”, which denotes that a child’s life chances are determined by their parents “material circumstances”. With inequality feeding into education and education feeding into inequality, what progressive policies must do is break this cycle and rethink the way we do education as a country.

In their interim report of their education inquiry, Compass have presented a new ethos and political approach to education in the UK. Touching base with the profound effects of inequality in education the report’s author, Professor Ken Spours, says that “education, and its relationship with the economy, is betraying a whole generation of the young”. Hoping to reverse this trend the report talks about creating an education system that engages people, is contemporary, relevant and dynamic. It is best described in the terms that the report uses itself: working towards “the birth of a national education system from cradle to grave”.

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Education shouldn’t begin or end at the gates of schools, colleges or universities. Education is a society-wide effort, with society-wide benefits. To create the education system we need our politics must move to a long-term frame of policy. Gordon Brown, for all the flaws that everyone remembers, at least understood that this had to be done; with commitments to early intervention in tackling child poverty and increasing the education leaving age to 18, he understood the need for long-termism in policy. If we are to change our education system to the one we need, we will need a lot more of this.