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Social State: Reclaiming Education for All

Education in a new Social StateIn a new revitalised social welfare state education would be reconceptualised as a universal right; an entitlement not a positional good to be competed over.

At an historical juncture when the free schools of the 2010s are set to become the for-profit schools of the 2020s, it is time to reassert democratic citizenry, to campaign in the interests of the majority not the few.

What the vast majority of parents, across both working and middle classes, want is a good local school for their children.

Crucial to achieving this is brave, principled political leadership.

In the 1970s, the Finnish leadership made a strong ethical decision to abolish private schools and introduce a truly comprehensive system. At the time there wasn’t a groundswell of support for such changes but the political leadership in Finland decided that education needed to be organised in the interests of all and went ahead with the changes regardless, believing it was important to show a lead in pursuing the common good.

That had almost happened in Britain in the decades after the Second World War. Although there was a strong lobby in favour of abolishing private schools and comprehensivising education, in the end the cowardice and self-interest of the political elite of the time ensured the hierarchical status quo was upheld.

The detrimental and divisive consequences of that decision are still with us, reinforced by growing marketization and competition within education.

In over twenty years of researching in schools and classrooms I increasingly hear young children define themselves in terms of their test and SATs scores.

Education under a revitalised social state would have much wider ambitions – to realise the potential of all. It is little wonder that currently many working class students are disaffected and disconnected from schooling.

Education under a social state, committed to fairness and social justice, would not concentrate on making the working classes middle class, it would recognise and value all social classes and would involve giving parity to vocationalism alongside academic knowledge. Education in this new vibrant social state would also see one of its principle aims to reduce the social distance between people rather than, as the current system does, exacerbate them.

What we understand by knowledge and pedagogy would need to be reconfigured in an education system fit for a truly social state. There would need to be schooling for democracy and cooperation in place of schooling for hierarchy and competition, while knowledges that enhance social and political awareness would replace knowledge that props up the power of a privileged minority and discourages critical questioning.

So empowerment would become central to education. Currently empowerment is a discredited term because we have so little in our educational system. In contrast, empowerment in the new social state would not be about individual empowerment at the expense of others but rather empowerment that comes through collective learning which aims to create a better, fairer society.

Let’s hope, as the Coalition increasingly turns its back on fair and just education, that in 2015 the Labour Party will become the first British political party to begin the vital task of developing an educational system that works for all.