Radical education is gaining traction with the Labour Party’s grassroots; the Labour Party must heed their demand for a bolder and more transformative approach
Education & Wandsworth Transformed
By Rowan Fortune
What unifies the British Labour Party’s members is the desire to realise a different type of society to the prevailing one, informed by values such as camaraderie, internationalism, inclusivity and solidarity. On education, especially, there is a great outpouring of ideas from the grassroots about one of the ways in which such a society could be practically achieved. The bold optimism on display, here, is asserted against an overall grim situation, and this optimism is the key to a Labour Party that offers more than transitory excitement and fragile gains — a robust party that can fundamentally reshape the country’s education system.
When I attended Wandsworth Transformed on 1 June 2019, I picked the radical education panel over the economic one because while the party’s economic vision has secured plenty of attention inside and outside of the party, its education policy has garnered less traction. This is true despite the fact that Labour’s 2017 manifesto suggested something that might completely overhaul the current mess of private, semi-private and underfunded state schools: the National Education System. The NES would, quite simply, aim to do for education what the NHS has done for healthcare. It was ambitious, and intimated an approach to policy unlike any since at least Thatcher took power.
When the 1945 Labour government established the NHS, it created one of the central institutions of fairness of the 20th century. The NES will do the same for the 21st, giving people confidence and hope by making education a right, not a privilege, and building bridges where the Conservatives build barriers.
Nonetheless, since then, the feeling amongst education activists within Labour has too often been disappointment. Other concerns have pushed the NES off the agenda, which might prove fatal. When the right has imposed an elitist, rote-taught, reductive conception of education, it planned ahead — for example, see Michael Gove’s work before his devastating reforms were enacted. At Wandsworth Transformed there was plenty of praise for the Labour Party leadership, but also the frustrated sense that the NES remains too thin, especially considering all of the time that has elapsed since it was announced. This was my feeling as I went to Wandsworth Transformed, and it was only reinforced by my experience there.
The thinness of the NES is in marked contrast to the ideas both from the panellists and the audience at Wandsworth Transformed (not to mention the conversations I have had with comrades in West London’s SEA branch). Labour’s leadership has contributed to changing the national conversation, thereby combating what the late, great Mark Fisher dubbed capitalist realism (manifested in Thatcher’s There Is No Alternative rhetoric). However, Labour’s policymaking structure remain opaque, complex, top-down and therefore unresponsive. Perhaps not relative to the other behemoths of British politics, but certainly measured against what’s required to sustain a mass movement, the membership lacks the power to keep the leadership informed about realities outside of Westminster.
Attendees of the panel led discussion had many things they wanted to see. The end of the testing culture in primary schools is one demand the leadership is finally engaging, and there are a range of ideas where such receptiveness is becoming more apparent—for instance, taking on Ofsted and prioritising mental health. There are some areas, however, where not enough is being done — for example, properly dealing with every manifestation of the poison of selection (including, in my opinion and that of other comrades, religious selection).
However, what is most lacking of all is a clearly communicated and member-led initiative to prepare for a national conversation, akin to that which happened in Finland as it laid the foundations of its system, which to this day eschews selecting, tracking, or streaming students, with no high-stakes testing of any kind. Such a conversation is needed if we are to adopt the holistic approach activists consider necessary, in the form of primary legislation (that is, a new Education Act) that gathers radical ideas and avoids the pitfall of piecemeal, ineffectual and largely negative reforms. To change education, Gove showed that you cannot merely respond to your adversaries, you must get ahead of them.
On the panel, Ruwayda Hassan and Sumairaa Alam of School 21 joined NEU activists Chloe Tomlinson and Ellie Sharpe, along side Durham sociology lecturer Sol Gamsu and Akram Sahab of Migrants Organise. They discussed the value of oracy (a conversation led educational approach pioneered by Andrew Wilkinson in the 1960s); the toil of testing on primary school teachers and students; the devastation that’s been wrought by Tory cuts; the new cooperative models of higher and adult education emerging in response to austerity and the need to decolonise the curriculum, including by looking in depth not only at the United Kingdom’s history of imperialism, but also at its alternative radical traditions such as the Chartist movement. Despite all of the reasons to feel disheartened by the status quo, the panellists stressed a positive agenda.
The tone could easily have been a purely defensive one, limited to political triangulations within the confines of existing social assumptions. And nobody there was naïve about the scale of the challenge. But rather than a resigned pessimism, this was a rallying cry, and a reminder that it is the task of activists to push the leadership in a more and more radical direction. That vital duty would be aided if the Labour Party could be more truly democratic, readily taking policy suggestions from its CLPs and drawing on the many talents and experiences of its members. The World Transformed, for example, could be a model of how to encourage members to participate in policy formation.
Whenever I leave such a meeting, I am struck by a peculiar ambivalence. On the one hand, it is impossible not to be awed by the range of ideas on display, the energy of activists, the stoicism of teachers struggling against cuts as they try to serve the diverse needs of their students. However, there is also a fear that nothing will come from all of that, the fear that the Labour machine is unable to translate this ambition and potential into a workable agenda. Gamsu was part of putting together an essay collection called A New Vision for Further and Higher Education. We need more publications such as this one. Activists must keep insisting that politicians do better, and leaving no theoretical vacuum where liberals and conservatives can insert their reactionary ideas about education.
At the beginning of the meeting, everyone was asked to reflect on their best and worst experiences of education. I was only in school about a year before bullying and other failures saw me withdrawn to be home-educated. My brief time there was an almost universally bad experience, and the joy of being home-educated was life saving. It occurred to me when I first joined the SEA how many of the radical ideas and complaints being articulated were the same as those voiced by home-educators, a community that has entirely rejected the status quo and chosen to opt out.
The problems with testing, the lack of focus on emotional wellbeing, democracy and the inability for the current model to tailor educational provision to the needs of children are at the heart of both the discussion amongst home-educators and radical educational activists. These and other ideas are echoed across the divide of socialist educators and parents providing their children with alternatives. I grew up hearing these discussions from my parents and their friends, and now I hear the very same discussions within the Labour Party. This is the only parliamentary party both willing and capable of meeting the radical demands at the heart of this ongoing conversation, but first it needs to listen.
The demands being made by organisations such as the SEA are not unpopular, but they do require a grand vision, a philosophy and a willingness to collaborate with parents, children and society more generally. Only on such a basis is it possible to find a way forward. The extreme focus on a reductive, competitive, elitist model of education serves merely a tiny minority, but it has the weight of prejudice and the majority of the establishment behind it. Corbyn, at least, seems on side, but more must be done. And perhaps more than anything else, the Labour Party requires courage, the type on display at Wandsworth Transformed, the type that has seen the Labour Party renewed in the recent past. With such courage, a truly radical education system could be amongst the greatest legacies of a Corbyn government, comparable to the creation of the NHS.