How to Save Our Schools

Our education system is failing both pupils and workers, and political leaders don't seem to care – so education unions are putting forward their vision for radical change.

Credit: John Slater / Getty Images

With the pandemic continuing to cause drastic upheavals in the education system, this should be an opportune period for politicians to set out their vision for the future of education in this country.

Like any crisis, the onset of Covid-19 has created both challenges and opportunities. The weaknesses of the current system have been exposed, and the potential for change has been made clear.

In this light, you’d be forgiven for thinking that with the first in-person party conferences taking place in the past few weeks, politicians of all stripes may take the opportunity to set forth an ambitious programme for education.

The Tories have offered yet more attacks on education workers, the latest being the threat to remove the cap on directed time, and some vague nonsense about tackling low attendance head-on (they do realise we are still in a pandemic, right?).

But that is predictable of the Tories. The real disappointment comes from Labour. Rather than leadership and vision, we got a set of announcements which were lacklustre and unimaginative at best.

Calls for more funding and a proposal to end tax breaks for private schools were welcome, but nowhere near radical enough—in fact, announcements on private schools watered down 2019 party policy and set out no coherent strategy for the integration of these schools into a National Education Service. There were also calls for more power for Ofsted—an argument which does no favours for Labour with education workers.

Labour’s complete lack of vision or flagship policy shows a party completely out of touch with its base; in this respect, its education perspectives don’t differ much from the rest of its programme. It seems almost banal to point out that, if Labour is to ever regain power, it must start listening to those whom it is supposed to represent. Those who labour—the workers.

Yet away from the Westminster bubble’s disappointments, the possibilities for change are very real, and there is exciting work to be done. The National Education Union (NEU) stepped into the void left by poor opposition during the pandemic, showing that despite draconian anti-union legislation, it still has teeth.

Thousands of new members and reps joined the union, hundreds of thousands turned up for what is thought to have been the largest trade union meeting in history, and the union determined to a great extent what happened on the ground with whether schools opened or closed.

The challenge now is to extend this beyond questions of health and safety and to win real professional control over the education system.

In the face of a government pay freeze, there is the real potential of a coordinated national campaign for decent pay—and supported by robust action. The long-term aim of such a campaign should be a return to national collective bargaining and a national contract for all education workers. We must start by working with other unions to smash the public sector pay freeze.

At the same time, we should raise the demand for a properly funded National Education Service which provides education to all from the cradle to the grave. We can once again give space to the voices of parents and staff that have long been silenced by unaccountable CEOs at faceless academy chains, run like businesses.

We can set out a clear plan to return schools and colleges to local democratic control and re-establish Local Education Authorities on a new, democratic basis, to provide support and services to schools, colleges and settings, and their students.

We can extend the power we showed during the pandemic to abolish Ofsted and Estyn, end the exam factory culture that has been created in schools, and return control of the curriculum to education professionals and local communities, working collaboratively for the best interests of our children and young people.

We cannot wait for politicians to raise their sights when we know what our schools, our colleges, and our communities need. Yet neither should we turn our back on the political struggle that will be necessary to achieve an alternative vision.

That begins by setting out a positive vision. In the words of the recently departed education campaigner, trade unionist, and researcher Terry Wrigley, we must ‘overcome the deep pessimism and fatalism that hang over education today’, where perhaps the greatest obstacle is our own fearfulness.

The choice should not be the workplace versus Westminster. There will always be a need for political struggle—but that struggle has to grow out of our collective organisation in our workplaces, in our communities, in our class.

About the Author

Robert Poole is an activist with the National Education Union (NEU) and the media officer of Bolton North East Constituency Labour Party (CLP).

Gawain Little sits on the National Executive Committee of the National Education Union.