Mike Berkoff began his career in 1974, teaching in a comprehensive for three years. He was a lecturer/course organiser in Further Education for twenty three years and a senior manager in Adult Education for nine years. His main teaching was in mathematics and computer science. He is now happily retired.
We find ourselves in an era where the clock is being turned back. The move by May’s administration to expand grammar schools is a direct attempt to return to the false certainties of a non-existent bygone golden age. How as educators do we react to this and other backward and damaging moves to reform the education system?
Firstly, it could be suggested that parliamentary opposition is important but, sad to say, the leadership (at the time of writing) is pretty hopeless at Westminster. This is not because the parliamentary Labour Party is not on side as there is a huge amount of talent and expertise in education available among our MPs. Those who know how to operate in Westminster are pretty much sidelined ideologically and our response is therefore blunted in that sphere. Tragic but true.
The fact is though we have a huge representation in local government and, as can be seen in London and elsewhere, there is a great deal of success in running education by Labour authorities. Even at a time of academies and free schools Labour education policies at local levels have had a beneficial effect at driving up standards. I could not truthfully have written that last sentence a few years ago. We learn and apply the expertise our basic principles have taught us. Our strength at local level is no accident. Labour at its best knows the areas it operates in and has forged strong links over many years. In education this is as true as elsewhere. Let us be aware that a big expansion of the grammar school system will damage existing provision and marginalise huge numbers of current and future school students. So let us consider what can be done about this.
The curriculum is a major factor in the process of delivering success. The move by central government to push the curriculum towards limited employment oriented outcomes is narrow and based on a misunderstanding of how education works. I admit this began before 2010 but that is not to say, as some like to, that in some way the last Labour government was in some way as bad as those that have followed. It was not and produced many fine improvements for state education. The funding mechanisms have moved substantially away from supporting a wide inclusive curriculum in favour of utilitarian outcomes. This limits educators but as is shown up and down the country we can still produce innovative and effective provision. The local authorities themselves encourage many institutions in the belief that it is beneficial to work in collaboration across their areas and pure competition is not the way to produce successful outcomes. I am of course referring to the public sector rather than the private sector. As such many academies function effectively in cooperation with other state providers and often take their lead from local authorities and work very closely with them. This was not the intention of the political ideologues of the Conservative Party so unfortunately we can expect some form of attack on this.
Despite the actions of teachers, local authorities, parents and others we must expect that damage will be done to the attainment of many as the grammar system re-embeds itself. Alternative routes for students, especially those reaching their mid/late teens are needed. Strong sixth form consortia, sixth form colleges, Further and Adult institutions must be maintained. A levels are now less on offer in FE but they are not the only route. The BTEC was always under rated and now there is an emphasis on apprenticeships, there is the Baccalaureate, ranges of City and Guilds, EdExcel and many more. These are all valid but unfortunately we do have a culture that downgrades many alternative to A level qualifications. Our educational institutions are working hard to emphasise the different routes to qualifications at many different levels.
To sum up Labour makes a major contribution to education at a local level and has great influence throughout the sector. Most local Labour politicians know how to work with their communities and be inclusive. This may change if the hard left gain too much influence but for the time being we have a lot to offer and can help deflect many of the harmful influences that are heading educations way.