Edinburgh students protest education cuts and tuition fees in London, 2010WIKIPEDIA COMMONS: MICHAEL JAMES SHAW

Free university tuition has become the shibboleth for both the Labour Party and the student left. Like no other issue, it has been used to galvanise student support around Jeremy Corbyn, and the Labour programme more generally. However, as much as the claims to fairness and opportunity resonate, they are fundamentally misguided.

To deal with the opportunity gap at university is too late, and disproportionately benefits those who have already gotten ahead through the education system. If the Labour Party (or any party) truly wants to make a difference through education, they must first undertake a radical reform of Britain’s primary and secondary education system, in both structure and finances. Otherwise, free university education will simply be a hand out to the well-off, and offer nothing to those students who have been left behind by Britain’s woefully inadequate state education system.

“Newsflash: if you want people to become teachers, pay them properly”

Firstly, and here the Labour Party is right, the state must invest more in teacher salaries. State education does not pay in the United Kingdom; in Canada’s largest province the average starting salary is about £33,000, about £8,000 pounds more than a starting salary in the United Kingdom. This disparity continues throughout working life, where the average salary for an Ontario teacher is £46,000 and that of an average English school teacher is £30,000. Couple this with Canada’s significantly reduced cost of living and you have a profound difference in living standards within the same state-employed profession. Newsflash: if you want people to become teachers, pay them properly. To do this, a significant injection will be required – money that was going to be spent on eliminating tuition fees could very well be spent on this worthwhile initiative instead.

Secondly, a Labour government should end the ridiculous and unproductive obsession with standardized tests. Not only are they pedagogically dubious, they do nothing for classroom morale or encouraging a learning environment. It was very telling that the most prominent and potent criticism of removing AS levels was that Oxford and Cambridge might find it difficult to make fine and precise distinctions between candidates. As if this was remotely the point of secondary education. The results are quite clear: if you actually want students to learn and not just regurgitate information, you cannot blast them with counter-productive standardized exams. On this, the Labour Party is also right. While it may ‘work’ for Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea, all three jurisdictions suffer from exceptionally high student suicide rates and low student morale, thanks in no small part to this approach. Canada and Norway, on the other hand, compete well with all three without ever enforcing standardized tests en masse.

This being said – the Conservative government is right to pay specific attention to two particular areas: literacy and numeracy. While some have criticized Michael Gove for his focus on these ‘hard’ subjects, it is incontrovertible that they remain the core of a prosperous society. If you do not have students who can do basic maths and read complex texts, the education system is clearly failing. Here, there should be some form of standardized testing, although not of the type we currently use.

Thirdly, the Conservative government is right to increase autonomy for local schools. Every successful educational jurisdiction allows head teachers and teacher committees maximum leeway for hiring and firing, and curriculum development. This is not only a crucial way to build teacher investment in educational outcomes, it offers those on the ground the ability to use their own judgement. Having seen more than a few instances of central government trying to meddle in local decisions, I can say that these efforts have been invariably counterproductive and ill-informed.


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Of course, these changes are not easy, which is perhaps why the United Kingdom languishes so far behind its peers in state education, and remains one of the worst performing developed jurisdictions when it comes to educational equality. Now in my third year, I am often asked whether or not I want to stay in the UK (this being a ‘Brexit Britain’) or not. I often respond that I would not, one of the chief reasons being that I would not want to raise children in a country with such a poor education system.

But, if the Labour Party is truly a reforming one, it should drop its inane and counter-productive proposals for abolishing tuition fees and focus on an issue that would truly offer opportunity for all: tackling root and branch reform in Britain’s antiquated, backward and failing state education sector

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