Let’s Get Heretical on Education: Competition Has Failed

natalie+bennettIt’s time we talked about education.

Not just about the disasters of free schools, the horrors of stressful, damaging Ofsted inspections that produce random results (as the organisation itself has just acknowledged), the huge workload being carried by teachers and pupils, but about the basics – the philosophy behind our education system and indeed education itself, and its place in society.

I’m going to begin by quoting the Open University’s Ron Glatter, who has argued: “international experience indicates that emphasising choice and competition to drive improvements is not effective”.

That makes sense when you strip away the ideology and think about what competition between schools means – the driving force of Michael Gove’s free schools approach. If you have competition between widget factories, then some of them will fail. That will be pretty bad for the workers, but we might assume that if there’s a fixed need for widgets they’ll get a job at a more successful plant. So no great problem for society.

But turn that model to schools, and what happens when a school closes down? Pupils have their education disrupted – disastrous in our age-driven, rigid system, that means they can’t just go back to catch up. Pupils in neighbouring schools see their education disrupted too, as new groups are levered into their existing structures. Local areas lose what should be their heart – the place where parents get together, build organisations and build community spirit.

Schools are encouraged not to share good techniques and approaches, but hug them close – or at best to to try to sell them to other schools. And they’re encouraged to sneak sideways into selection – ensuring by hook or by crook that pupils who aren’t going to be an ornament to their results aren’t on their rolls at test time.

So let’s start with one heretical thought: competition is disastrous in our education system and should be abandoned as a guiding principle. Instead what we need is cooperation – an informal co-operative of pupils, teachers, parents, communities working together to help achieve the best possible outcome for each pupil.

Then we come to what education is for: and I couldn’t argue with the 1988 Education Reform Act, one of the few in our history to explain what schools should do: “promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils … and prepare pupils … for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life.”

But that’s not what schools and teachers are being judged on now. The test result is king. Sat results, league tables, are what heads hold or lose their jobs by, and they’re forced, whether they like it or not, to pass that pressure down to their staff.

Look at the turnout at the recent elections, particularly among the young, and hear when many explain they don’t vote because they don’t know enough, and you have to acknowledge that citizenship education is certainly failing, and if we think about skills that everyone needs: cooking and nutritional knowledge, financial management, sex and relationship education, gardening even … few would claim that many schools are providing these essentials, let alone more abstract but essential life skills like problem-solving, emotional resilience, and effective communication.

So my second heretical proposal: let’s cut the testing, stop spending time on endless drilling for Sats and other exams, let’s ensure that our children get a broad, healthy education for life.

Original article published in Huffington Post

Based on a speech delivered on the afternoon of June 1st at the How The Light Gets In Festival 2014 in Hay-on-Wye

Follow Natalie Bennett on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@natalieben

European Elections: Greens’ Message of Real Change for the Common Good Resonates With Voters

natalie+bennettAs I write I’m on the train to Stroud, for a lightning trip to congratulate our new Green Party MEP Molly Scott Cato, who becomes our third representative in Brussels, with London’s Jean Lambert and the South East’s Keith Taylor re-elected.

Those results came on a good night for the Green Party – we finished fourth in the European parliament election, comfortably beating the Lib Dems (who finished with just one MEP) into fifth place.

It was result achieved despite extremely limited media coverage – there’s no doubt that we got vastly more votes per minute of TV coverage than any of the other four large parties.

So why did it happen? Partly, undoubtedly, as our strong local election results indicate, it was the result of solid on-the-ground campaigning, going door to door, holding stalls, delivering leaflets.

But more than that, I think what won many votes was our message of hope, of positive change, offering a plan for real change to ensure that our society works for the common good, the 99%, not for the few, the 1%.

Policies such as making the minimum wage a living wage, renationalising the railways, keeping our NHS publicly owned, publicly run and free at the point of use, investing in renewable energy (while banning fracking) and providing warm, comfortable, affordable-to-heat homes all played their part.

But it was above all our determination to look forward with optimism, to say that we do have within our democratic power the ability to create a better society, one in which everyone has access to the resources for a decent standard of life (which means jobs you can build a life on and adequate benefits for everyone who needs them) within the limits of our one fragile, overstretched planet.

That means standing up to the politics of fear, as represented in the form of Ukip – which seeks to blame our many, obvious, problems in society on immigration and Europe. Sadly, the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems have failed to tackle this narrative – to unpick how our low wage economy, housing crisis and crowded schools and hospitals are not the fault of immigration or immigrants.

To start with low wages – no immigrant arrives at the White Cliffs of Dover and says “I want to work for poverty pay, be shamelessly exploited and pay extortionate rents for a bed in a shed”. Low wages exist because we have an inadequate minimum wage, inadequately enforced, and the power of unions to help workers to band together to resist has been shredded by legislation.

Housing? Well that’s complicated, but worth starting with the fact that there are now more bedrooms per person in Britain than ever before (huge inequalities of access here as there are in income and wealth), and at least 600,000 empty homes, mostly in the North and the Midlands (the result of failed and non-existent regional development policies, and one more reason why we shouldn’t build HS2). And schools and hospital? Michael Gove’s free school laissez-faire approach has left local authorities unable to plan for demand, and funding for both is seriously inadequate.

When you consider the failures of successive governments these facts represent, it’s perhaps not surprising that Labour, Tories and Lib Dems would rather go along with the Ukip narrative on immigration, and try, all too often, to out-Ukip Ukip, in promising curbs on immigration and introducing the disastrous, unworkable Immigration Act, as well as chasing after their climate change-denier agenda on wind turbines and other energy policies.

Instead we’ll continue to say, loudly and proudly, that we celebrate free movement of people within the European Union – which results in roughly balanced numbers of expatriates and incomers for Briton, and that we should continue Britain’s proud tradition to providing asylum to victims of persecution and war, and hosting foreign students to our mutual benefit.

The BBC asked me this morning if the arrival of Ukip (and even darker parties such as the Front Nationale) in Brussels would be disruptive. I agreed that it will be.

But disruption, creative chaos, real change, is just what our stale, failed political system needs, just as the angry voters, lashing out or expressing frustration by either voting Ukip or staying at home (as 63% did), need to be offered hope.

Our political future doesn’t look like the past. Happily.

Read the original article in Huffington Post here


Follow Natalie Bennett on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@natalieben

Greens pitch radical renationalisation of railways to boost election hopes

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett with  Peter Cranie at anti-fracking camp at Upton in Chester

Green party leader Natalie Bennett and MEP candidate for north-west Peter Cranie, on a visit to an anti-fracking camp at Upton in Chester.

Photograph:Christopher Thomond for The Guardian

Article by Damien Carrington

For a party pledging to renationalise the railways, a calamitously disrupted Virgin train journey to the latest campaign stop of the Green party leader, Natalie Bennett, is a gift. Stranded at Crewe, she stops short of promising trains would run on time under state control but says: “At least you won’t be paying huge profits into shareholders’ pockets.”

The Green party, hoping to triple its number of MEPs to six and add 10% to its 140 local councillors in Thursday’s elections, is direct about its radical pitch to voters.

“We need to entirely reshape our society so it works for the common good, not just the interests of the 1%, and we need to do this using just one planet,” says Bennett.

The biggest crowd-pleasers at public meetings are, she says, rail nationalisation, removing the profit motive from the NHS and ending student tuition fees. “At some point we have to say austerity has gone too far. Things like social care have to be paid for.”

Pollsters and political pundits judge the Greens’ target for added seats to be plausible if ambitious. But they note that their poll rating of around 8%, while ahead of the Lib Dems in some polls, is similar to that at previous European and local elections. “However, because the Lib Dems are doing so badly, the Greens could finish fourth,” says Anthony Wells, at polling company YouGov. “That will be seen to be a big success for them, even if it isn’t really.”

Like all parties in the late stages of a campaign, they are focussed on ensuring their supporters vote, and the first stop is an anti-fracking camp in a field at Upton, near Chester. Amid the tents, dogs and a piano on a pallet, a friendly reception greets Bennett and college lecturer Peter Cranie, the Greens’ lead MEP candidate for the north-west of England. He lost to the BNP’s Nick Griffin by 0.3% in the last European elections and the morning after also lost his job. “It was the worst 24 hours of my life,” he says.

Anti-fracking campaigner Susan Burt has switched from voting Tory to the Greens. “What the main parties are doing on fracking is evil – it’s the biggest threat to our country since the second world war,” she says. Cranie says the issue is a clear vote winner for the Greens. “We will see peaks around the north-west, where people are worried about fracking.”

Nearby in Liverpool, Green party activists prepare for canvassing with lunch at the Green Leaves veggie and vegan cafe on Lark Lane. Tom Crone, the Green council candidate for St Michael’s ward by Sefton Park, says he is anticipating a complete Lib Dem collapse in the city. Lib Dems ran the council until 2010 with 46 of 90 seats, but could be left with just a handful after Thursday. “Liverpool was one of the biggest hit by council spending cuts,” Crone says. “We could become the official opposition,” he adds, though the council will remain overwhelmingly Labour.

Green party candidate Tom Crone canvassing in the St Michael’s ward in Liverpool
Green party candidate Tom Crone canvassing in the St Michael’s ward in Liverpool. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for The Guardian
The Greens have targeted the ward for several years and the initial doorstep support is enthusiastic. “We vote for them because of what they believe in, mainly the environment and they are very good on the local area,” says resident Barbara Thew. “Little parties can make a difference and if enough people vote for them they can become big parties.”

But there are also knock-backs. One lady complains about an unresolved bin problem, while another says: “I don’t really know much about you.” The firmest rebuff comes from a retired man, who declines to give a reason just as firmly.

“Immigration always comes up at some point,” says Crone. While Green window posters are most common, Ukip banners can also be seen. Nationally, the pro-Europe Greens back a referendum on EU membership. “We trust the voters,” says Bennett. She argues concerns about immigration stem from failed employment, housing and health policies, not the arrival of migrants.

YouGov’s Wells praises the Green’s ability to concentrate their vote. “The greens have been very good at targeting support,” he says. “In the last local elections Ukip came second in the vote but didn’t get that many councillors: the greens are the complete opposite, throwing everything at certain places and doing well.” As with previous local and European elections, the Green’s vote share leaps from the tiny 1% or less support they typically get in general elections.

However, across the European Union, the party looks set to lose MEPs: polling predicts a drop from 48 MEPs to 38. Claude Turmes, a long-serving Green MEP Luxembourg, blames the austerity after the 2008 financial crash: “There have been less front pages about planetary emergencies and more on unemployment, which strengthens the parties with electorates that compete with the Greens – the far left and Social Democrats.”

But Neil Carter, professor of politics at York University, asks why the anti-austerity Greens are not actually doing better in the UK. “Given the unpopularity of the mainstream parties, why is it business-as-usual for the Greens?” he says. “Ukip is doing well, so why are the Greens not making gains on the opposite side of the political spectrum?”

Carter agrees with Turmes that lower environmental concern than in the run up to the 2009 elections is a problem. “Given that people in the UK tend to see the Greens as a single issue party, that means they find it harder to attract support.”

But he cites the low media profile of the Greens and their policies as the key factor. “Apart from the environment issue, people are pretty much ignorant about Green party policies,” says Carter. “Nigel Farage is a high profile leader who, apart for a few recent stumbles, been playing a very effective role: how many people could name the Green party leader?”

Read original article in The Guardian here