Subscriber Says: why Angela Rayner can win teachers’ hearts

Can a woman who left school without any GCSEs at grade C or above revitalise education?


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Teachers have just broken up for the summer. Judging by the policy positions of various professional teaching bodies and conversations with colleagues in a variety of forums, it is clear that almost unanimously teachers, management, parents and students are looking (no, crying out) for a break from top-down, ideologically driven and unnecessary change. One source of this worry is an assessment target-driven curriculum that preferences one form of intelligence – academic – over all others. There is a real concern, too, that the curriculum offers little scope for creativity, or crucially preparing students with vocational and technological skills for the future.

To misquote Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a secretary of state for education who has new policy initiatives must be in want of a career. Over the last 40 years, educational debate and initiatives have been largely driven by the whims and prejudices of successive secretaries of state who enact a constant change agenda. This reflects their individual tribal allegiances with one eye it, it would seem, on their next promotion. This period has been littered with excellent policy ideas that have been scrapped on the altar of political positioning. Typically this decision-making is characterised by a right-wing discourse that attempts to create a sepia-tinted view of 1950's education under the banner of rigour, more inspection, “Bring back Grammar Schools” and of course the perennial “an end to falling standards”.

What is needed is somebody untainted by their own personal preferences and educational hubris, who will listen to those working in the sector and create pragmatic and strategic policy. At times it felt that Justine Greening might make a decent stab at this (naturally she was sacked by Theresa May). However, a look across the Commons floor at the shadow secretary of state for education, Angela Rayner, and hopes are raised significantly. 

Rayner is someone who is genuinely able to break with tradition because she has no vested interest in wrapping herself in the flag of academia and standards simply to curry favour. In her speech at the 2016 Labour conference, she declared: “Some of the Tories say, ‘she left school at 16, she doesn’t have a university degree, what does she know about education?’ I say, I may not have a degree – but I have a Masters in real life.” There is a hope that Rayner may be uniquely placed to recognise the different forms of intelligence that young people possess. The aim of course should be to pursue excellence in all areas. 

While known as an ally of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Rayner is refreshingly devoid of political baggage. As she stated in 2017: “Ideology never put food on my table.” Which brings us to the idea of her National Education Service. Key elements include:

1. Creating a unified National Education Service from cradle to grave. Lifelong learning that is free at the point of use. Upskill opportunities for all.

2. High-quality childcare places with a direct government subsidy. 30 free hours for all two-year-olds. Free school meals for all primary school children.

3. Reversing cuts at all levels. Properly resourced comprehensive schools. Commission to consider curriculum and assessment. More links with industry.

4. Local accountability at all levels. Devolved power to local authorities. Trusting teachers. Disseminating good practice and quality. Joined up admissions policies.

5. Restoring the Education Maintenance Allowance. Employer-led apprenticeships to meet the skills gap.

What’s not to like? Naturally there is a great deal to flesh out, and various affiliated groups are doing just that. The Fabians’ Blue Sky document (edited by Brian Matthews) is particularly good at suggesting practical detailed solutions for the National Education Service. Melissa Benn's series of books provide a thorough analysis and provide sensible policy suggestions within the comprehensive model. 

The consultation process of the National Education Service has just ended. Crucially, Rayner needs to present it as “common sense” and attract support beyond the Labour Party. Can a woman who left school with no GCSEs at grades A to C have the answer to an educational political football game? The answer seems to be a resounding yes.

Christopher Harris is a recent NS subscriber of the week who works on the Fabian Blue Sky Education group. He has worked in the secondary school state sector for 40 years as a teacher, head of department, and senior leader. He currently works part time as a media co-ordinator in a school in East London. 

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