The conference was called under the umbrella of Reclaiming Education, an alliance of organisations including the Socialist Education Association, CASE and ALLFIE, the Alliance for Inclusive Education.
The purpose of the meeting was to discuss Labour’s plans for a National Education Service. So the major focus should have been Labour’s 10 point Charter for a NES. Curiously, the Charter was distributed at the Conference but was not directly discussed. This was a missed opportunity.
The Conference heard from a range of speakers discussing interesting aspects of the various phases of an overall education service – early years, higher education, further education and schools. To have such an overarching and broad sweep of education was clearly a good approach.
Speakers from 2 political parties addressed the conference. Jonathan Bartley from the Greens spoke out about inclusive education and in support of the NEU (National Education Union) policy on academisation, privatisation and selection. Scrap SATS, abolish Ofsted, get rid of academies, were his rallying calls. By contrast, Mike Watson, the Labour education spokesperson in the House of Lords, was much more equivocal and was not as explicit on these issues. He came across as weak.
On early years, we were treated to an interesting presentation on early childhood brain development. From this presentation it became clear that the early years education approach should be more play-based and not formal and rigid and test-based as the case is now. Furthermore, to have an early years baseline assessment was also called into question.
On higher education, we heard about the need to avoid the artificial and negative distinction between the ‘elite’ universities and the rest. And that universities shouldn’t be just for young people.
As far as further education was concerned, the speaker made a case for changing the way that students pay fees but did not call for or discuss the abolition of fees. Of course the demand for fees to be abolished has been made by students themselves. In the light of this it was pointed out from the floor that the conference should have invited representation from the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts so that the voice of progressive students could have been aired.
The Conference was addressed by Save Our Schools, a Brighton based parents’ group which operates in a similar way to Rescue Our Schools here in London. Save our Schools has done very useful work with headteachers and the local community on the issue of reversing the cuts to education. Area based parents’ groups like SOS operate on their own but also liaise on an informal level with other groups nationally.
Kevin Courtney of the NEU spoke on the issues facing schools. He said that in the last election 750,000 people changed their vote because of their disgust about cuts to schools budgets. There is a massive crisis, he pointed out. The main elements of this crisis are:
- Funding, of course
- The massive scandals around academies. Lack of accountability and financial mismanagement come to mind, and
- Assessment or more accurately, ‘misassessment’ in which official tests focus on the wrong things in the wrong way and even at the wrong stage of a child’s development.
Kevin urged us to be bold as we take forward the campaign on education in our areas.
A number of very interesting documents were distributed at the meeting. All of these deserve to be discussed by serious activists. They are:
- Labour’s 10 point Charter for a NES. It makes this commitment: “The National Education Service shall provide education that is free at the point of use, available universally and throughout life”.
- Manifesto by Rescue Our Schools (a parents organisation). “The world’s most successful education systems have no selection and there’s no evidence it [selection] improves standards or life chances.”
- 10 Goals by Education Forward. The first goal is “schools should be judged on a much broader set of outcomes (eg students’ resourcefulness; their ability to engage with political, economic and ecological issues; their confidence with digital technologies; their enjoyment of reading)…”
- A position paper by Reclaiming Education – “The focus of education should be collaboration rather than competition”, is one of the many good points it makes.
- A proposed Inclusive Education statement distributed by Islington Constituency Labour Party. In the present system, “any child or young person who does not reach the arbitrarily determined standards for their age is vulnerable to exclusion”, it states.
- A proposed resolution for NEU Conference 2018 on Inclusive Education submitted in the name of Hackney NEU/NUT. It urges us to mount a “Campaign to ensure sufficient and mandatory training for all beginner and in-service teachers on how to implement inclusive education of SEND students in their classrooms and schools.”
The conference had many positives. Let’s build on them.