Open briefing to Angela Rayner**: towards a National Education Service

** Angela Rayner: Shadow Secretary of State for Education, British Labour Party



A National Education Service could be one that:


  • Unifies the work and learning of educators and students at all ages and stages of education, from kindergarten to the Third Age [rather than fragmenting practices];
  • Establishes a set of principles to drive education development and quality based on humanism, service, self-determination and democracy [rather than merely asserting performance measures];
  • Seeks out educational quality by fostering critical reflection, professional autonomy and sharing of experience [rather than legislating for it as an abstract and insisting on compliance];
  • Accepts that it must rely on educators to manage the local complexities of educational interactions [rather than assuming a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to local problems of knowledge and skills];
  • Brings together educators, employers, community leaders and politicians to forge consensus over society’s needs in respect of service, employment skills, social cohesion, wellbeing and spirituality [rather than privileging economic necessities];
  • Understands that all educators and educational units – schools, colleges, WEA classes, training departments – are diverse in their quality and capabilities and cannot be accused of ‘failing’ [rather than assessing the complex workings and organisation of educators in crude ‘traffic-light’ measures];
  • Responded to the current crisis of national identity by fostering debate over what counts as of public value [rather than retreating into abstract notions of ‘official knowledge’]
  • Relied on educators for their professionalism, intellectualism and creativity and for carrying local curriculum responsibilities [rather than treating them like ‘Deliveroo’ riders for centrally determined curriculum];
  • Served educational policy by submitting it to the scrutiny of ‘critical friends’ on the same terms as professionals – i.e. mutual accountability [rather than starve policy shapers of critical resources];
  • Earned the confidence and respect of parents and students [rather than assuming it through the exercise of authority];



A left-wing approach to education starts with a commitment to principles of humanism and democratic values.

Techniques do not stand alone – they are expressions of these principles. There is no teaching, classroom organisation or school leadership technique or even accountability system that is not saturated with values. All actions in classrooms reflect a commitment to social justice, whether from the Left, Right or Centre. Education is not neutral – it involves choices. It is the exercise of ethics, not the application of technology; it is about what is fair, rather than what is ‘right’.


Here are some distinctively left-wing principles which apply to education at all levels, from pre-school to Continuing Education:

  1. People relate to each other through mutual obligation, collaboration and shared purpose and not only through competition.
  2. All knowledge is personal, made sense of by the individual – but the ends and benefits of knowledge are collective.
  3. All students and educators have individual rights to knowledge, and these rights combine in a shared commitment to improve public understanding.
  4. Classrooms are not separate from society; they are part of the social fabric and students enjoy citizen rights and respect no less than a voter, a patient, a parent and a professional.
  5. All classrooms are local expressions of knowledge and values – but all classrooms are part of the international effort to extend the reach of humanism and moral progress across age-groups.
  6. Classrooms are places where society learns about itself, so long as the curriculum is taught through research and enquiry and not solely through instruction.
  7. Learning is an inevitable characteristic of being human – at all ages. If it is not happening in one place it is happening elsewhere. No student can be accused of failing to learn.
  8. Learning itself is too complex a process to be summed up in precise scores. We cannot assume that educational outcomes are a reliable measure of the quality of education.
  9. Educational quality cannot be devised centrally and then disseminated – like a medical treatment. It has to be discovered and refined locally – in schools, classrooms, lecture halls and communities.
  10. If we were to choose a professional model for teachers it would be the hospital consultant, confident and experienced in the autonomous exercise of clinical judgement.


In practical terms these lead to three overarching conclusions:

One, that school accountability should balance loyalty to central principles with local freedom to express those principles in classroom action.

This involves de-emphasising control and rediscovering professional creativity and autonomy. It involves a shift from seeing educators as ‘deliverers’ of curriculum to educators as an intellectual workforce, shaping curriculum on the ground in response to local needs and circumstances. Schools and all educators should be held accountable for their reach and imagination, not for their compliance. Policy organisations should be held accountable for their success in supporting educators.

[OfSTED is a Right-wing solution to the problems of control, and it is corrosive of the principles given above. A more progressive, democratic approach is found in the New Zealand Education Review Office[1] which conducts school reviews on the basis of negotiation, facilitation and support for development.]

Second, that a national curriculum should provide an overarching framework of democratic values which bind together the life-long contributions of all educators at all levels and ages.

When the Qualification and Curriculum Authority was created apart from the Teacher Training Agency (as was) this symbolically and practically separated educators from knowledge. The link should be restored. Curriculum that makes sense to students, parents, employers, people of the third age and others is curriculum that, yes, reflects society’s priorities, but which also reflects local needs and understandings. Educators in kindergartens, schools, colleges of education, WEA and other formal and informal education settings are best placed to negotiate local needs. The appropriate model for curriculum development is the SACRE, the Standing Conference on Religious Education, which brings together local stakeholders and interest groups to approve and verify a local curriculum for their schools. The SACRE is merely a remnant from curriculum arrangements that the UK once enjoyed.

Third, that education and schooling should be de-bureaucratised to allow for more porous boundaries and more flexible divisions.

Children do not perform predictably by age-group – there should be a return to ‘vertical grouping’. Assessment research has shown time and again that cut-off scores (pass/fail; reading scores; high/low ability) are highly unstable and should be used with extreme caution – as they are in Scandibavian countries; Lifelong education should dissolve boundaries between vocational/academic study; between formal and informal education; and between primary, secondary, tertiary and third-age provision – all cnfront similar educational issues. Teachers in classrooms have more accurate assessments of a student’s progress than any educational test could achieve.


Specific policies to underpin a National Education Service

  1. OfSTED should be disbanded – possibly reinvented along the lines of the NZ Education Review Office – i.e. as a negotiated, developmental service accessible to all educators.
  2. The National Curriculum should be rewritten and overseen by a Conference of Educators to reflect educational principles and values that allow all educators of all ages, formal and informal, to identify with common aims of humanism, social and economic progress and democracy.
  3. All standardised testing in schools should be cancelled and replaced with classroom-based formative assessment along the lines of e-asTTle in New Zealand[2] or the International Baccalaureate Assessment for Learning.
  4. Education league-tables should be abandoned and replaced with a policy for the creation of local consortia of schools, FE, HE and other education providers for mutual exchange, learning and development. Parents and employers should be primary stakeholders in these consortia.
  5. Parental choice should be terminated, since it reinforces market competition among schools. Schools should be zoned to ensure the widest possible social and demographic mix.
  6. Teacher education resources should be returned to universities as part of a strategy for the professionalisation and support of all educators – in schools, communities, professional groups and elsewhere.
  7. A National Education Service should negotiate a New Settlement governing the relationship between central government and Local Education Authorities and identifying those areas of policy that are to be standardised, harmonised or subsidiarised.






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