The future of education should be this country’s priority. That’s what Ian Austin thinks. It may not have been the whole country, but the future of education was, briefly, given priority with the latest Anatomy project – Our Responsibility towards Education. After five regional Young Fabian events the reporting stage of the project began with a round table discussion focussed around four groups with the capacity to mould education policy; the teaching profession, businesses, communities and students and the state.
The context for the discussion was set by Kevin Brennan and a number of experts who spoke from a range of perspectives; Emma Knights from the National Governors Association, David Johnston from the Social Mobility Foundation, Matt Robb from the Parthenon Group and Adrian Prandle from the ATL. The speakers guided discussions by introducing the variety of ways that different stakeholders are currently engaged in education as well as the different challenges that those stakeholders face in promoting the change they desire.
Grouped discussions at the London Anatomy summit.
What was readily apparent was the recent acceleration in the move towards school autonomy that has produced what Kevin referred to as an ‘archipelago of schools’, and the resulting impact on the influence of local authorities to affect education policy has both caused problems for coordination at the same time as potential space for greater engagement from a wider range of stakeholders.
Aside from the practical difficulties of engaging a wider range of stakeholders in the education process it also raises the question of our view of the purpose of education. Different stakeholders have different ambitions; businesses, as users of education, will have a different, even conflicting, understanding of the type of education we should be providing than the state or local communities for example.
Yet, the question of purpose, as raised by Peter Haysom at the Cambridge Young Fabians should not serve to pitch stakeholders against each other. There is more than one purpose to education; the aim of education should be to increase students’ capabilities in as many areas as possible. The aim of education policy then, should be to empower a range of people to contribute and enrich the policy making process and above all students’ learning.
Through roundtable discussions the event culminated in a series of recommendations and further questions around how each of the four groups we are looking at should and could engage with education and the education policy making process in particular. These recommendations will form the core of the Anatomy publication.
Across the groups a number of key themes emerged.
- The temptation to support a general approach of ‘what is best is what works’. Evidently this seemingly depoliticised view of policy is a tempting position. Especially when ‘higher standards’ passes as a valid political position and Labour should use evidence to develop policies that improve students’ learning as far as possible. Yet education is a political issue, there will always be value judgements to make both regarding its delivery as well as its provision. These political decisions should be explicit in Labour’s education policy, not disguised as symptoms.
- The possibility of further change, or at least the desirability of further change. Following on from a will to deliver ‘evidence based policy’ there were doubts about the extent of change that a future Labour government should pursue. Education has been heavily politicised, at least since the late 1980s and a familiar criticism of education policy is its transience. In this context it is comforting to propose limited changes in the future. While the promise of greater stability is a comfort to the education sector, it is also dangerous to pursue stability if the policies in place have the potential to harm students’ education.
- The need for a new middle tier. With evidence and stability as its foundation, all four groups recognised the need for systematic coordination and collaboration between schools. Teachers, businesses, communities and the state all have a role to play in forming education policy and delivering education. Yet without institutions to bring those groups together efforts at collaboration seem fissiparous.
Recent education policy has aimed to separate schools from external control and from each other, yet increasingly they are called upon to serve a greater variety of purposes. In order to meet this demand schools must be able to call upon the experience of a variety of groups and those groups must be able to contribute to future decision making in education. Our Responsibility to Education will aim to propose what that engagement will look like.
The final report for this Anatomy project is currently being written. If you want to feed in to this process, either by organising a local event or contributing your own ideas, please get in touch.
Joe Lane is Editor of the latest Anatomy, Our Responsibility Towards Education and lead of the teaching profession focus.