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England’s school system is in crisis – could Labour’s National Education Service be the solution?

England’s education system is reaching crisis point. A major problem is the teacher shortage – as schools struggle to recruit and retain staff. Maybe this isn’t surprising, though, given a recent survey found that many state school teachers say much of their work is meaningless – reduced to being merely about capturing metrics rather than real learning.

Teachers in England’s schools are under enormous pressure to get good test results for the all-important league tables. This has led to a widespread “teach to the test” culture. There is also growing evidence of “dodgy practices” in admissions – all in a bid to boost rankings. One way this happens is by informal or managed exclusions of poorly performing pupils – who are often children with special educational needs.

This competitiveness, which permeates much of the system, is also having a negative impact on pupils. Mental health problems affect about one in ten children – and partly to blame are the marathon of tests they have endured from a young age. Children in England are among the most tested and least happy in the world.

Educational inequality is chronic in the UK. And the combination of high-stakes testing and selective schooling makes matters worse. The effect of social class is most prominent at the age of 11 when grammar schools get the opportunity to select pupils – most of whom have had access to private tuition. It’s no accident, then, that high-performing selective schools continue to be dominated by the wealthiest pupils.

With so much competition between schools, you might expect there to be choice – but it seems choice depends on the depth of your pocket. Consider, for example, the price tag of £204,000 in basic fees alone for a five year education at Eton – this, the top school in the UK, is only a choice for the most affluent parents of 13 year olds.


Read more: GCSEs are a waste of time – an education expert proposes an alternative


Issues beyond the school gates

The state of higher education is no better. With funding slashed, more than 40% of total university finance now comes from student fees. And with tuition fees being among the highest in the world, students are forced to take student loans carrying exorbitant interest rates of between 3.3% and 6.3%. Though these do not necessarily have the same impact on students from wealthier families who can pay off the debt immediately if they want.

Universities are now offering more places and increasingly more unconditional offers to students in a bid to lessen their own serious financial struggles – which has tended to turn students into customers. And, as the labour market prospects for young people diminish, universities are marketing themselves as the most attractive in terms of “employability”. With this has come claims that grade inflation is rife and that too many students are being awarded top grades.

More than £16 billion is loaned to around one million students in England each year. Shutterstock

Academics are also struggling. Primarily to blame are increased workloads, many academics in higher and further education work on average more than two unpaid days each week – working unpaid weekends and evenings and missing out on holiday to get the job done. Academics are also more easily dispensable than ever before, with cheaper replacements – such as hourly paid postgrads desperate for a foot in the door.

A National Education Service

Previous attempts to address the emerging crisis have actually created more competition — as was the case with previous education secretary Michael Gove, who reloaded a distinctly neoliberal rather than progressive education policy agenda.

There has never been a revolution of the whole education system in England, but this is the ambition for Jeremy Corbyn’s National Education Service (NES), that would mirror the NHS. The idea is to radically change the structure and ethos of education – which is currently stratified and differentiated mainly by social class – by creating a new system that is universal and free at every level: “cradle-to-grave”. Labour also pledges to introduce free school meals for all primary school children, paid for by removing the VAT exemption on private school fees.

The new service would aim to foster a collaborative ethos through a structure that designates institutions as partners rather than competitors. This would happen within and across all stages and levels of education. It would replicate something like the London Challenge model which successfully improved schools in London by encouraging them to learn from each other and work together.

Equality and fairness

Instead of focusing on metrics, with threats of punitive consequences, educators should be encouraged to co-construct a localised curriculum and engage in research and development – with sufficient time to do so. These are the cornerstones of the highly successful Finnish model of education. For the Finns, there is no crisis of recruitment and retention, instead, teachers are valued, autonomous and have an esteemed professional status.

With no inspections, tests, uniforms or fees, Finland’s education system is ranked among the best in the world. shutterstock

Of course, financing a National Education Service is the critical challenge. But politics is about choices and education needs to be viewed as a national priority – a greater share of GDP needs to be allocated to educating the generations, rather than other (vanity and legacy) political projects. A change in the taxation system would help to move the country towards a National Education Service.

Ultimately, a society and education system that is built around principles of equality and fairness is what the country should be aiming for. And for this to happen, deep structural change is necessary. Whether Labour’s National Education Service would be the change many have been waiting for remains to be seen. But one thing’s for sure, it’s a step in the right direction.