Tory and Blairite attacks have devastated our education system, with baleful results for school staff and students. But Jeremy Corbyn has promised a game-changing ‘National Education Service’, and unionised workers have proven that fighting back works.
Martin Powell-Davies, a teacher, National Education Union activist, and member of the Socialist Party national committee, looks at what’s needed to save education.
Cuts and crisis: stop Tory school havoc
Tory austerity and education policies have damaged the education of millions of young people. This general election gives young people, their parents and school staff a chance to throw Boris Johnson and his government out of office.
Significant damage has been inflicted by school spending cuts. UK education spending in 2020 is projected to be as low as 4% of national wealth, as measured in ‘GDP’. That would be the lowest figure on record since 1959.
The Conservatives have utterly failed to keep the promise in their 2015 manifesto “to protect school funding.” In reality, funding per pupil has fallen at the same time as the demands on school budgets have grown.
Figures from the trade union-backed School Cuts campaign show that rises in pupil numbers, alongside the extra costs of pensions, pay and inflation, have left an annual shortfall of over £2 billion in English schools alone. Schools in Wales, although funded separately to England, face significant financial pressures as well.
Stop school cuts
Those cuts mean schools have fewer teachers, fewer teaching assistants, and larger class sizes. Staff cuts have particularly hit music, design, arts and language posts in secondary schools, contributing to a further narrowing of the curriculum.
Cuts mean thousands of youngsters with special educational needs and disabilities are not having their needs adequately met. Schools are trying to cater for complex needs without adequate staffing and resources.
Rising child poverty, a direct result of Tory austerity, also has inevitable emotional and behavioural consequences. Yet, with budgets for youth, child and adolescent mental health services all being slashed, underfunded schools are left to somehow pick up the pieces.
Sixth-form class sizes are also mushrooming – in a sector that traditionally always had smaller student numbers per teacher.
Of course, those students won’t escape the funding crisis if they continue to higher education. However, they’ll have to pay for the privilege by racking up tens of thousands of pounds of debt for huge tuition fees and rising living costs.
Toll on staff
And underfunding is exacting a terrible toll on staff. Salaries for teachers have fallen by over 15% in real terms since 2010. That’s been made worse by schools trying to limit their wage bill by refusing annual progression up their pay scales, further adding to staff demoralisation.
Support staff and teaching posts have been cut, adding to the demands on the staff remaining. Government promises to act on unbearable teacher workload have proven to be worthless.
The average working week for a teacher in England remains a staggering 50 hours – with a quarter working more than 60 hours a week.
Those pressures are deepening the ongoing crisis in teacher retention, with the government’s own figures confirming that a third – a third! – of newly qualified staff now leave teaching within the first five years.
Small wonder that schools continue to be blighted by constant staff turnover, especially those supporting the most disadvantaged communities where pressure on staff is greatest.
In short, the Tories have wreaked havoc on our schools, staff and education. They have to go!
Corbyn promises change: building a ‘National Education Service’
On becoming Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn pledged to transform education through a ‘National Education Service’. The general election gives him the chance to carry out this vital transformation.
Corbyn’s initial proposals highlighted genuine ‘lifelong learning’, including scrapping tuition fees, investing in early-years ‘Sure Start’ centre provision, and reversing cuts to the adult skills budget.
There was a welcome confirmation at September’s 2019 Labour Party conference that a Corbyn government would indeed abolish tuition fees, cap the cost of school uniforms, and provide free nursery education for all two to four-year-olds.
Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner also committed to ending the infamous Ofsted school inspection regime, replacing their often destructive reports with ‘health checks’ organised through local authorities.
Jeremy Corbyn had previously announced that Labour would scrap ‘Sats’ exams in English primary schools, including the new baseline assessments for four-year-olds. Correctly, Corbyn has criticised the pressure Sats put on young children, and the way they narrow the primary curriculum as schools concentrate on boosting the test scores on which they will be judged.
Of course, teachers would continue to rely on assessment to inform their work – and to inform children, their parents and carers – but the failing of children through high-stakes testing would cease.
Reversing Blairite marketisation
Abolishing Ofsted and Sats – and their Welsh counterparts, the inspectorate ‘Estyn’ and the ‘National Tests’ – would be significant first steps towards ending the pro-market consensus that existed between all the main parties under the capitalist Labour leadership of Tony Blair.
Under ‘New Labour’, neoliberal education policies were imposed, as they were across the globe at that time. They were designed to cut costs by making schools compete in an education marketplace.
Schools ‘failed’ by Ofsted, or found at the bottom of Sat league tables, could then be blamed for their poor performance – rather than putting the blame where it really lies, on government failure to tackle poverty and fund schools properly.
Ofsted outcomes have been used to bully staff and undermine schools. After receiving ‘inadequate’ ratings, over 500 primary schools have been forced out of local authority control into the hands of unaccountable, publicly funded but privately run ‘multi-academy trusts’.
This has accelerated the fragmentation of education in England. And of course, ‘academisation’ hasn’t improved education – only the bank balances of those private profiteers who control it.
In reality, Sats results and Ofsted gradings have always owed more to child poverty than teacher performance.
Recent research has confirmed that schools where a high number of pupils are entitled to free school meals are far more likely to be deemed ‘inadequate’ than schools without those levels of poverty. Reversing austerity more generally is essential to improve educational outcomes too.
Reversing Tory cuts
With polling showing that school cuts are an important issue for voters, it’s not surprising that all the main parties are promising more money for schools. But who can be believed?
The Tory-Lib Dem coalition government was responsible for year-on-year cuts in the proportion of GDP spent on education from 2010 onwards.
Until recently, the Tories largely denied that school cuts were an issue. In 2018, the then Tory education secretary, Damian Hinds, had to apologise when he was reported to the UK Statistics Authority for making false claims about government school spending!
Knowing a general election was on the cards, Johnson promised schools would have “£14 billion additional funding over the next three years”. However, once inflation and double or triple-counting is taken into account, the pledge is actually more like £4.3 billion a year.
That’s not even enough to reverse the cuts suffered since 2010, let alone to increase spending to genuinely improve education. 83% of schools would still have less money per pupil in real terms next year than they had in 2015.
Angela Rayner has promised that “a Labour government will fully reverse Tory cuts and give our schools the funding they need to ensure every child gets a good education.” Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has pledged that schools will receive some of Labour’s proposed £150 billion ‘social transformation fund’ for upgrade work.
These are policies which every parent, school student and member of staff will be hoping – and expecting – a Labour government will carry out.
Standing firm: how to defend education reforms
Education will be one of the key issues that could determine the outcome of the general election. If Labour boldly campaigns to reverse school cuts, and end tuition fees, Sats and Ofsted, it could help convince both working-class and middle-class voters to back a Corbyn government.
But the real test would then follow – to stand up to big business and implement Corbyn’s manifesto commitments.
Where’s the money?
Corbyn has previously proposed to pay for greater education spending through a small increase in corporation tax from its present very low 19%. It’s not a radical step. Even back in 2010, the standard rate was 28%. In 1979, it was 52%!
Nevertheless, any attempt to divert more wealth towards “the many, not the few” will be resisted by the capitalist class. Already, financial institutions – who will be piling on the pressure against the background of a likely world recession – are saying it would result in lower investment in Britain, and so fewer jobs and lower economic growth.
Increased tax rates would also be met with further tax avoidance and evasion by big business. Of course, the best way to combat that, and to genuinely control the economy, would be to nationalise the main firms and financial institutions under democratic workers’ control and management.
It seems likely that the Labour election manifesto will pledge to end fee-paying ‘independent’ schools’ spurious ‘charitable status’. A further route to provide some additional resources for state education would be to implement the policy also agreed by Labour Party conference to redistribute their assets across state education.
Of course, to be carried out successfully, a Labour government would need to assure staff in independent schools that their jobs and conditions were secure.
However, as it provides such a challenge to the privileges so fiercely guarded by the wealthy, it may well remain just a paper policy unless the workers’ movement pushes for its implementation.
If Corbyn is serious about introducing a genuinely transformative ‘National Education Service’, he will need to ensure that, as with the NHS, it is not continually undermined by the existence of a parallel private sector available only to those who can afford it.
Local democracy, not academies
A more immediately pressing education policy agreed by Labour’s 2019 conference is also facing resistance from the right of the party. This called for an end to academy schools, with all publicly funded schools to be placed under the control of their local council through “reformed, democratically accountable local education committees with stakeholder representation.”
Without this urgent step being taken, ensuring control lies with school staff, parents, students and the local community, any ‘National Education Service’ will fail. A national system can’t operate if half of England’s pupils continue to be educated in schools controlled by over 1,000 different unaccountable multi-academy trusts, with their own policies and competing interests.
The struggle to reverse academisation is part of the struggle to make sure Labour becomes truly a party that acts reliably in workers’ interests. Shamefully, too many Labour MPs and councillors still share Blair’s ideological support for the marketisation of schools.
Parents and trade unionists must demand that Labour’s conference policy is put into practice, and fiercely campaign against any further attempts to widen academisation if any new administration seeks to implement such a policy after the election.
Trade unions decisive
Whoever wins on 12 December, school staff unions need to organise to demand a national contract that guarantees improved pay, and working and learning conditions. That’s essential if we are to reverse the damage done by years of staff turnover and start to provide the stability and resources needed to meet every student’s needs.
The best result for education would clearly be a Corbyn-led majority Labour government. However, even in that best case scenario, mass pressure will be needed to counteract the pressures that will be put on a Labour government to accept the diktats of big business – not least via the Blairites in his own party.
If it’s a Tory-led administration, then there will be no choice but to fight – and to fight hard.
Already around half of academies are in deficit, and about a quarter of local authority secondary schools are too. Even more will follow once they have spent their remaining reserves.
Labour councillors and school governors should stand with parents and staff and refuse to implement any more cuts, backing unions taking strike action to defend education. They should follow the successful example of Valentine School where a campaign led by the National Education Union (NEU) won a two-year cuts freeze.
Resistance is already growing. Strong campaigns based on strike action, such as those in Newham, east London, have shown academisation can be defeated.
This month will see NEU members in sixth forms, and University and College Union members in higher education, taking strike action in separate disputes over pay, working conditions and other concerns. Earlier this year, Scottish teachers organised by the EIS union were successful in winning significant pay rises just through the threat of national strike action.
Whatever the result of the general election, trade unions need to prepare for decisive action, linking up with parents and school communities, to defend education.