Priorities for a National Education Service

Teacher asking a question in class at a London primary school. Engaged children are raising their hands with the answer.

Lots of excellent ideas for education’s future, from Melissa Benn’s “abolition of national tests in years 2 and 6”, and a “less prescriptive national curriculum”, as related in Peter Wilby’s review of Benn’s book Life Lessons (Clarion call loud enough to rally even the weariest, 4 September) to “abolishing the VAT exemption on private school fees” as suggested by Robert Verkaik (‘Let teachers sack their boss’: What else should be in a National Education Service?, 4 September), but no one had an answer to the obvious question. There is a recruitment problem, and teachers are leaving the profession in droves, so who actually is going to deliver the new curriculum?

Quite clearly, the job has to be more attractive, with much more money paid to classroom teachers, and the workload seriously reduced. That means smaller classes, more teaching assistants and more support for welfare and behavioural issues; the recent furore over exclusions highlighted problems that have blighted state schools for years. Marking has to be reduced, with parents having to accept that not all work can be assessed and commented upon. Reports have to be decreased in size, with more reliance on effort and attainment grades, and only underachievement requiring detailed comment.

As Peter Wilby implies, state interference has been resented by teachers in the past because it has added to workload, and therefore stress levels; legislation decreasing those levels is essential.
Bernie Evans

 Given the calibre of the contributors, I was disappointed in the scope of the responses to the Guardian’s question about what the priorities should be for a National Education Service. Only one response mentions what or how children are taught. Instead, most of the contributions focused on two issues: school oversight and tuition fees. These questions exhaust education debate in the country, but have little impact on what children achieve.

Instead we should be asking more fundamental questions and learning from the many brilliant schools in Britain who are transforming the life chances of disadvantaged kids. Why are we still failing to embed this across our education system? Why do some countries do much better?

Part of this is about our failure to connect what goes on in the classroom with what happens to children outside. For vulnerable children the support needs to be seamless, but for most it is anything but. To address this we need to connect education, health and social care. Many children failing in the education system have in turn been failed by the child and adolescent mental health services system.

We also need to face up to difficult questions about how we allocate resources across the early years, schools, further and higher education. For generations early years education has been the poor relation, despite overwhelming evidence that this is when interventions can be most effective.

But the first issue for our education system is what we do about the hundreds of thousands of children missing out on education in this country. This includes young children not getting potentially transformative early years education, school-aged children marginalised from mainstream schools and children dropping out at 16 (despite the new leaving age of 18).

An education system that delivers for these children will be one we can really be proud of.
Martin Lennon 
Head of policy, Children’s Commissioner for England

 A National Education Service with local oversight could provide coherence to the relationship between publicly and privately funded schooling. An NES would need local governance and administration which could be provided separate from – but perhaps coterminous with – local government, through a directly elected stakeholder group of parents, governors, academics and politicians, supported by a team of professional academics and administrators. These would replace the existing local authority teams and the undemocratic structure of regional schools commissioners. These local education boards, accountable downwards to their electorate and upwards to the NES, would be tasked with the oversight of all statutory (five to 18) schooling, however it is funded.

The criteria for all provision would include standards of progress and achievement across a broad and balanced curriculum, alongside fair and equal access promoting equality of opportunity for all children. The local board would have powers to levy rates or local taxes on privately funded schools according to the extent to which they meet these expectations, and to recommend to the NES that schools unable to achieve national standards should have their owners or sponsors changed, their charitable status disallowed, or their right to provide education removed.
Nigel Gann
Education consultant & school governor

 Perhaps Nadhim Zahawi, minister for children and families, should get out there and speak to a few families whose children have special educational needs. If headteachers’ warnings are to be met with ministerial platitudes that fail to recognise the truth (Report, 5 September), maybe an encounter with the real difficulties facing families will inject a little enlightenment. How much longer can government ministers pretend that their austerity policies are not having a devastating effect on services, on society and on voters?
Linda Rhead
Hampton, London

 Re market forces and schools (Letters, 1 September), how about market forces and universities? Since accepting his place at university for September, my son has received a free razor, via “Ucas Media”, with tokens, leaflets selling insurance, bank accounts and gym gear, digital memberships with tiny discounts, reduced “gadget cover”, a sim card to encourage him to change phone company, and absolutely nothing about how to manage an enormous loan and live independently for the first time. He is not fooled, and understands that he and the others are just another market for exploitation. Another reason students are feeling the pressure?