Labour’s manifesto: free education and a National Education Service

In this article a NCAFC activist explains why the Labour Party’s Manifesto commitment to free education and a National Education Service is important and badly needed. But a free, democratic and emancipatory education is something we’ll need to fight for to win whatever the outcome of the general election.

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o-CORBYN-STUDENTS-facebookCurrently, England is the most expensive country to study in the world. Since the 2010 Tory-LibDem higher education (HE) reforms there have been cuts to government funding, an expansion of the student loan system and of course the famous trebling of tuition fees to £9,000. These sets of changes have been come together with an overall neoliberalisation of universities: more casualised labour and decreased pay  and pensions for workers in HE, higher salaries for university managers, and more private institutions getting their foot in the door in the HE market. In turn there is now a lower proportion of working class students going to university and those leaving HE leave with massive amounts of debt. The current Conservative government is pushing the neoliberalisation of universities further by implementing a set of Higher Education Reforms which will result in universities being ranked according to a Teaching Excellence Framework, and these rankings allowing some universities to raise their fees and those who are seen to “fail” be closed down or taken over by private businesses. As it stands many universities across the UK from Aberystwyth, to Manchester, to Durham are announcing a wave a job cuts citing the pressures of marketising reforms as their reason. The current system desperately needs to be overhauled.

The call by the Labour Party in their manifesto to abolish fees and implement a National Education Service is a welcome event. This is a massive change from New Labour which implemented tuition fees back in the 1990s, as well as from a Labour Party a couple of years ago which only promised a cut in tuition fees to £6,000.  An NES would mean a cradle-to-grave system that guarantees access to learning for everyone: free childcare, comprehensive schooling, abolition of fees and valuing properly those who do the work. Furthermore, establishing an NES and deprivatisation of education creates the potential for a more democratic education where those who are doing the work and study call the shots and make the decisions, rather than managers.

Education at all levels is necessary for a democratic society. It allows people to discuss and think creatively and critically about the world they live in, and is important to allow society to flourish by giving people the means to learn, discuss and teach whatever it is they might want to do. Because education benefits all of us it the costs should be borne by those who have the means to pay for it. Despite the backlash Labour will get from the press and right wing parties, the abolition of fees and a NES is necessary and totally possible. HE funding is currently not sustainable and is coming of the back of student loans, much of which cannot be paid back and which the government continuously tries to sell-off. If we restructure how education is currently funded and tax the rich in our society who hold the wealth that is created by working people – bear in mind that the richest 10% in our society hold half of the £8.8 trillion pound wealth in the UK – then we will have enough money to fund not only the NES, free childcare and Labour’s other pledges, but much more. We need to argue beyond what Labour is currently guaranteeing. Maintenance grants must not only be reinstated, but increased to a decently liveable level and extended to all students, and living costs eased by not just restricting rent rises, but reversing them in halls and beyond. Labour should clarify that its pledge to abolish fees will be applied to international as well as British students.  And graduates should receive an amnesty on the student loan debt that should never have been imposed in the first place.

However, it will not be enough to vote Labour in and hope for them to make good on their promises. This is not how positive social change happens: a left-wing Labour-led government would face obstructions and immense pressure to retreat on its policies. We will need to continue building a strong student and workers movement in education and beyond which will provide the political pressure for these promises to be made a reality. One of the many reasons why it has been possible for the leading opposition party to take on these proposals is the pressure that has come from the grassroots movements. The seven years of protests, occupations, actions, boycotts, solidarity with striking workers, and convincing people of the necessity of free education has put these issues on the table – it is worth recalling that up until a few years ago the NUS was one of the only student unions in the world not to have any policy on free education.

Going forward it will mean continuing and increasing the pressure – whatever the results of this election. Quebec, Chile, South Africa, Germany and many other countries have managed to resist and reverse attacks on education by having organised and militant struggles through direct action and student strikes. NCAFC and education activists have been pushing student struggles in higher education, making the argument for free education, coordinating national demonstrations and pushing nationwide actions like the boycott of the National Student Survey. Join us to keep it up.

Positive Visions for Education – End Learning Factories

This is an opinion piece written by a NCAFC activist who wishes to be named as Flavius McFlavourdale. To contribute to NCAFC’s discussions building a vision for a National Education Service, take a look here and get in touch!

An illustration of the “monitorial education model” where older students instruct younger students and the teacher monitors the whole class at the back. The history of public education is often symplistically told as a story of the Prussian public school system being extended throughout the world although despite their being competing models. However, this model was developed by a British priest and a Quaker in the 19th century and became very widespread.

An illustration of the “monitorial education model” where older students instruct younger students and the teacher monitors the whole class at the back. The history of public education is often symplistically told as a story of the Prussian public school system being extended throughout the world although despite their being competing models. However, this model was developed by a British priest and a Quaker in the 19th century and became very widespread.

Education everywhere, all the time.

When it comes to radically changing our education a really significant issue is how our education system works as a place of social reproduction1 and a place where people are filtered for obedience. In many ways it works as a factory. Not in the sense that students and those engaged in learning are workers in the same way as workers in factory or production line are – students don’t produce things that are then sold in the market. Instead students are trained in various tasks: calculation, deconstructing texts, writing essays, programming, regurgitating “facts”. Students are put through curricula, made to learn things off by heart, learn a certain methodology for solving problems or writing an essay and are subsequently tested. Learning is done as a 9-to-5 routine. Your classes on certain subjects (whose divisions are in many ways arbitrary) begin and end at certain times. Moreover, the criteria for progressing through the system depends on how well you do on a marking scale and whether or not you can adapt to these routines and metrics or see much point in doing so. Of course, there is some “support” to help you through this but it is altogether quite marginal and tends to just reinforce the status quo. This is a rough description of what our education system is like. It’s not totally bleak and not everyone’s experience is the same – you can find amazing teachers who do great work or a subject and ideas that really change your perspective but these are exceptions not the norm.

What needs to be questioned and what was put really well in the previous NCAFC article is that our education system as it runs today is not this way through rigorous scientific research into education or some “natural progression” of society but it is very much this way by design and put together by those who have an interest in maintaining the economic and social status quo. Our education system is put together so that we become obedient workers and citizens and that we have the skills that business and elite interests require. Schools and universities have intellectual monopolies and try to give the impression that the people who go to these places and do well are “intellectually significant people”. Moreover, the education system is alienating and reinforces whatever hierarchical structures already exist with regards to marginalising people of colour, disabled people, women, queer, trans and non-binary people. The many aspects of the current education that need to radically change, however in this short article I will look mainly at how grading and routinisation of learning filter people for intellectual obedience.

The problem with grades

The practice of graded assessments and testing are both nonsensical and have really bad effects on people’s self-esteem and psyche. They are nonsensical because human beings are so complex and your abilities are some much more than something that can be ranked on a scale of A to F or 1 to 10. To put it into perspective, I remember having a maths tutor in my first year of university who refused to grade our work (he’d still give feedback and say what was correct and wrong). He put it this way. In physics one of the simplest systems is a pendulum, however, if you wanted to measure the period on a pendulum by taking one swing or even just a couple any scientist would just laugh at you. However, with humans this is basically what we do. Of course this is not to say what we need to make more tests and measures. It just exemplifies that any endeavour to measure a human’s ability to learn is far too complex. Importantly, this grading system has a bad effect on our psyche because we internalise this grading system. For example, I tried for a while not to look at my grades for university. Consciously what I think is “what should really matter when I am learning something is the ideas that I come across, the discussions I have and to have my views and perspectives challenged. I should question and think about things in a critical and creative way.” However, I find this difficult to do in practice – especially if I am worried whether I have passed or failed my course. I know consciously that how I do in an exam or essay doesn’t reflect on my value as a person but it nevertheless ends up being a source of validation or failure and this has an effect on my self-esteem. This grading system pervades our whole working and education lives. It is so much a part of our lives that in many ways it is difficult to imagine an education system without it. How many times have you sat around with friends at school, college or university comparing grades and coming up with rough calculations of what to focus on.

This grading system also results in bad intellectual approaches. The most important thing in a university, the thing that the institution either praises or fails you on, is how good your grades are. If you write something that is outside of the norm, that is not liked by your given examiner or simply styled in an unorthodox way you risk doing “badly”. As a result, many people will be put off exploring and writing about something that is outside of the academic norm or that you are less knowledgeable about. Zoomed out and looked at on a larger scale this dynamic of grading, routinisation of learning and regular disciplining ends up being a filtering system of intellectual obedience.

Despite all this people may think okay, yes there drawbacks for having a grading system, but we need them because (a) we need a way of assessing how well someone has mastered something, and (b) whether you like it or not the current economic system requires. In response to (a) I can only really say that there are many other ways to give people feedback than just a grade, the most obvious being narrative feedback – that is you give people learning constructive feedback in words to show what they can improve on and what they are doing well. Many teachers observe day-to-day the bad effects of graded assessment and many teachers try to avoid and get rid of it being used in their classrooms. In many ways getting rid of grades is a positive step in and of itself, because grades do more harm than good. Grades set up an artificial stratification of ability between children (which often serves to make children who are “failing” not engage with learning anymore), they damage our self-esteem and we end up internalising an attitude to learning where you are taught to be motivated by high numbers rather than wanting to be creative, critical, sociable and have fun by learning. In response to (b) (we need a grading system because our economic system requires it) I would say that we need to seriously rethink the way economics works and if the result of it is that systems of education get set up that undermines people’s internal motivation to learn and turns them into automata then that’s just another reason to resist it.

There are more subtle, and arguably more significant ways, that the education system filters for intellectual obedience. This is through the way the educational system crushes people’s ability to think independently. Children are taught what things are important to learn and important to say and what things aren’t. The examples that come most immediately to mind is the way in which history and politics, especially in the way it is whitewashed. Not many of us were taught the way in which Mahatma Gandhi very much supported the caste system (many of us are taught that he was someone who fought against caste) and that he supported racial apartheid in South Africa. And in many ways Winston Churchill is hailed as a hero, despite his racist, sexist and homophobic views and the his responsibility of over 1 million deaths in Bengal in 1943. Britain and Europe’s violent and bloody colonial history is conveniently sidelined in the curriculum and as well as working class and indigenous people’s resistance to state violence and oppression. The histories of people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Mother Theresa, Winston Churchill, etc. are now taught in such a way that coheres with an anti-socialist and pro-nationalist framework – histories of resistance are whitewashed or left out, and simplistic narratives where those in power call the shots are emphasised. When it comes to less ideological subjects such as maths and the sciences these are often taught in a very formulaic and standardised way and they end up being some of the most disliked subjects as a result.

Looking forward…

Activists in Germany scaling buildings to put up a banner. The banner reads: Träume brauchen Freiräume statt Lernfabriken (“Dreams need free/liberated spaces not learning factories”)

Activists in Germany scaling buildings to put up a banner. The banner reads: Träume brauchen Freiräume statt Lernfabriken (“Dreams need free/liberated spaces not learning factories”)

It’s this sort of disciplining through routinized, monotonous learning, and arbitrary metrics that mark out the way the education system operates as a factory – where it is students and the skills they are trained which are the products. In German they have a word for it called “Lernfabriken” and in Germany they also have a movement opposing the reality that education runs in this way called “Lernfabriken meutern” (mutiny to learning factories). The main slogan of their campaign is “Selbstbestimmt Leben und Lernen” which roughly translates as “self-determined living and learning”. In Germany there is current push by the government to reinstate tuition fees which were abolished in 2009 after large-scale student strikes and actions. The movement of Lernfabriken meutern advocates a positive vision of education where it is free at all levels, where those in working and learning in kindergartens, schools and higher education and people in the local community have a democratic say and place in the way education is structure.

The wave of occupations in the UK since 2010 have been as much about trying to resist neoliberal2 education reforms as trying to create spaces where we engage in education in a totally different way. Groups like the Free University of Sheffield and the Free University movemet in London a couple of years back as well as Warwick For Free Education’s occupation point to ways in which we can reclaim our spaces that are becoming increasingly privatised and only accessible if you take on large amounts of debt.

Education should not be seen as something that is done at a specific place by specific people and which starts and ends at specific years in your life. It should not be seen as something that can be put on a scale and graded and people’s continued access to it stopped or continued depending on this scale. It is not something you can neatly divide up into 50 minute chunks or even in age-cohorts. A radical positive vision of education, and by extension a National Education Service (or even better an Anti-national Education Service3), needs to include the abolition of graded assessment (or at least a large scale abolition of it), it needs to question the very idea that we have specific spaces where education is done (school, FE, HE). It should work as a place to liberate minds and to engage with the world and with people in a creative and sociable way. Good well-resourced education and places for learning should be available everywhere, all the time.


1 “Social reproduction” refers to the way in which current inequalities and structures are transmitted to the next generation.

2 Neoliberalism: an economic ideology that sees democratic choices as being best exercised through consumers buying and selling and which holds that privately run services in a competitive market based system are the best ways of running the economy.

3 I will try to expand on what I mean by this in another article but if other people feel like doing this that’s also great.

What should a National Education Service look like? Tell us what you think

Following our January conference, NCAFC is facilitating discussions in order to develop a vision for a National Education Service. We want to hear your opinions, ideas and arguments – please let us know if you’d like to contribute! In this article, Ben Towse from UCL Labour and Josh Berlyne from the Free University of Sheffield explain why we’re starting this conversation.

fist_pencil_square_borderNCAFC has always fought for more than just proper education funding and the abolition of tuition fees. Since we were founded in 2010, we’ve debated and developed ideas about what a democratic, liberatory education system would look like, and we’ve gone out and argued for those ideas.

It is easy for concrete ideas about the reform or transformation of our education system to be niche and wonk-ish, boring and difficult to articulate.  Indeed, proposals for education reform typically come from wonks in Westminster offices.  As a result, movements lose ownership over ideas, and it becomes difficult to bring proposals under a banner which can amass the kind of support needed to force them through.  The National Education Service has the potential to be that banner.

When he proposed it during the 2015 Labour leadership elections, Jeremy Corbyn spoke of an education system which would be free to access from cradle to grave.  He spoke about reversing adult education cuts by raising corporation tax; providing universal free childcare; abolishing tuition fees; and providing good, well-paid apprenticeships.

Almost two years on, the idea of a National Education Service is yet to be seriously developed.  This gives us, the grassroots, the opportunity to take ownership of it.  Through democratic debate and discussion across party lines, NCAFC can—and must—popularise the idea beyond the Labour left.  Only then will we see transformative ideas made real.

That’s why NCAFC is facilitating a conversation in which students and workers can put forward, debate and refine our ideas about a National Education Service. We want this conversation to lead to a set of democratically-adopted, concrete demands and proposals that we’ll campaign to for.

Our January conference included workshops to kick-start this discussion (reports from these workshops will be posted soon) and our members agreed a proposal that set out some basic ideas. We said that a National Education Service could:

  • Be universally accessible free of charge, with financial support through living grants/stipends for all.
  • Replace the chaos of market competition between institutions with an integrated service that is rationally and democratically organised to serve social good, rather the interests of the capitalist class.
  • Build on existing ideas about the “Comprehensive University” to break down arbitrary barriers within the curriculum and between streams of education, including between further and higher education, and “vocational” and “academic” study.
  • Be publicly owned and secular, and democratically governed by its students, workers and the communities it serves.
  • Through democratic control of the curriculum, allow us to overturn the sometimes overwhelming dominance of ruling ideologies in what is taught, opening space for radical, subversive, liberatory and marginalised ideas and perspectives.
  • Provide its workers with secure, decently-paid jobs and good conditions.
  • Include universal free childcare.
  • Be well-resourced, by taxing the rich and their businesses and expropriating the banks.

Now we want your thoughts. Do you want to write about a particular aspect of the education system? Do you want to respond to any of the ideas above, or any that were put forward at the conference? Have you read something in this debate that you disagree with, or you want to build on? Please write an article for us, or if you prefer, record a video or a podcast. We’re looking for contributions from our members, and more broadly too – in particular from education workers as well as students. You can get in touch at [email protected]. And for members, you can also debate and discuss on NCAFC’s webforum.

Over to you!