In December 2013 The Fabian Society published a series of short essays by prominent writers and activists entitled ‘Our London The Capital Beyond 2015’. (ISBN 978-0-7163-0634-4). There are major changes to London in the current period and this is a contribution to how in London might develop over the coming period. What I have set out below is a commentary on the education aspects of this publication.
The book has an impressive list of contributors including Sadiq Khan, Bonnie Greer, Jenny Jones, Doreen Lawrence, Tony Travers and others. It is worth a mention that the current government parties have little to say in the development of the capital other than following a sterile ideology in the case of the Conservatives and general platitudes (that do not upset the senior governing party) from The Liberal Democrats. The major contributions are coming from academics, community activists, commerce, industry and sections of The Labour movement. In this publication there is a contribution from The Greens as well.
The topics covered include transport, governance, employment, housing, environment, policing, the arts, education and health. Not all these areas are served well but in its defence any short essay will not be able to do justice to such important themes. Despite this The Fabians should be congratulated in bringing together diverse interest groups and having got ‘Unionstogether’ and The Corporation of London to co-sponsor this publication. It would appear that even the City of London can see the benefit of ideas outside Conservative orthodoxy.
So let me give some consideration to a few of the education themes tackled.
Having spent a large part of my career in Adult Education I was pleased to see the contribution from Sir Robin Wales. He states:
‘At present the vast majority of money that goes through the Adult Education (AE) system is paid out according the number of courses completed, with no regard to whether they’re actually what employers want.’
I am not completely sure that the last part of this statement is correct. It is my experience that employers often do not know what they want. Despite this the first clause of the above sentence really struck a chord with me. I have spent many an hour trawling through the funding website called The Learning Aims Database (obviously known as ‘The LAD’) trying to get a course programme up and running that was financially viable. As the years went by the LAD went increasingly towards qualifications as being the main arbiter of funding value. Many areas of study such as modern languages are not studied to gain certificates, yet a well educated population with a significant number of people able to function in French, German, Mandarin, Spanish or whatever is clearly of economic benefit. With a low funding formula for non-qualification courses the only ways they can be run are either through high fees or the adult course providers using subsidies. Many colleges do either of these but there are limits. The Adult Education sector and the Further Education sector have a huge provision across London but it is continually under pressure. This situation was true in the later days of the last Labour government and was worse after 2010. There should be a significantly different policy that an incoming Labour administration could offer the electorate. Much of the success of Adult and Further education comes from its very local character. Labour and Conservative authorities are very sensitive to pressure from the very articulate sections of their communities who use and support their local educational facilities. Labour should get behind this activism. After all much of our adult education grew from the same roots as the Labour movement itself. Another point is that the last Labour government has a lot to be proud of in education. The improvement in facilities was huge and comparable to what was built in the health service. We should not downplay this achievement.
While never wanting to be complacent London schools have shown great progress in the last few years. There are real reasons for this and many of them reflect on Labour’s policies from when in national government and continue with Labour local authorities. The infrastructure programme had its critics from a funding point of view but the new building and refurbishment that took place from the end of the 90’s through to 2010 give Labour reasons to be proud. No such updating has taken place under the coalition. Over the coalition period Labour local authorities have done much fine work to improve the overall effectiveness of our education system. During the 18 years of Conservative rule from 1979 until 1997 there was stagnation and debilitation in the fabric of our public education system (similar statements can be made in relation to the NHS). Labour was left with a huge catch up. Typically for Labour little is said about this when debating the state of the country. We hide our achievements and allow our opponents to deride all the fine work carried out.
Since 2010 Labour local authorities have continued as best they can to maintain and improve the state of the public education system. Initiatives such as free school meals were pioneered by Labour councils with cynical opposition from both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The Liberals may now be changing their policies but this does not wipe out Labour’s achievements. Free school meals have great beneficial effects. Catherine West (formerly leader of Islington Council) wrote:
‘The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that giving free school meals “significantly increased attainment—compared to similar children in other areas.” ‘
As Catherine West also points out the poverty trap for parents with children can be considerably eased with policies such as free school meals. This is only one of a number of important changes introduced by Labour councils, yet the funding for such local authorities has been badly cut and the less deprived areas often under Conservative or Liberal Democratic control have escaped much of the funding onslaught.
The government seems obsessed with the tiny number of ‘free’ schools while the vast majority of the rest of the public education system which maintains close links with LEA’s are barely considered. With Academies many of the better ones ensure that they keep very close ties with their local authorities. This is to the benefit of the school students and shows real benefits in their attainment. Before 1997 the Conservatives tried what were called Grant Maintained schools and they did not prove a success. Now the government parties work to sever local democratic accountability in other ways. Experimenting to weaken local democratic accountability may have an appeal for a small section of the population but it is the students who suffer in the long term. Real ‘localism’ can only come about with a local democratic mandate and that means LEA’s in local councils.
Further Education (FE) colleges had their ties with LEA’s weakened many years ago by what was called ‘incorporation’. This gave budget control to the college governing bodies in effect to college principals. The best of these kept close ties with their local authorities (can you see a pattern here?) but a few have run into some financial difficulties. The FE system is really part of the public sector but by a slight of hand FE recently was re-designated as private sector and George Osborne added many thousands FE workers to his newly created private sector jobs growth figures. Such is the way important parts of the education system are used as play things. Despite all this FE along with AE do a hugely important tasks in our country and they are to be nurtured and developed.
Higher Education is a whole subject in its own right. I leave comments on it to others.
Much of what I have stated above leads me to the conclusion that both in London and elsewhere it is local accountability through democratically elected councils that will provide the most effective ways of providing high standard education at most levels. There are now people talking seriously about linking areas such as health and social care so the relationship and integration of education to a whole range of other areas of social action needs also to be developed and taken forward. Labour has a long history of working in these ways and there is a huge amount of expertise among staff and users that Labour can tap into. It fits well with democratic accountability and the social democratic and democratic socialist aims that infuses the parties history.
Mike Berkoff December 2013