Our political leaders and school leaders have a foundational question in common: how do children and young people and those who educate them in our schools flourish?
A series of important questions follow: How do we create school environments where human flourishing means both the optimal continuing development of children’s’ potential and living well as a human being? How do we address the negative impacts of the pandemic and the current economic challenges? How do we create school environments that are built on affirmative models of disability for children with SEND? And how do we mobilise education as a force for social justice?
A duty of care
In A Duty of Care: Britain Before and After Corona, historian Lord Peter Hennessy says that the concept of a duty of care should again define us as we learn how to live in a post-pandemic world.
“The great question of UK politics,” he says, “is whether we can find the pessimism-breaking policies, the people, the purpose, the language, and the optimism to shift [our current] system and replace it with something much closer to who we are and, above all, who we can be.”
I believe education is the building of who we can be. But our school system is fragile. Multiple forces are putting pressure on our children, families and schools, including the negative legacies of Covid, large increases in the number of children experiencing mental ill health, the school workforce recruitment and retention crisis, the decimation of services around schools, and child poverty and destitution.
Building the resilience of our school system
To meet these challenges, we need to build the resilience of our school system alongside the resilience of our wider public services, our communities and our children and families. What we need is not a big state or a small state according to ideologies, but a strategic state that focuses on its duty to deliver that goal.
CST’s election priorities set out the role of the state in doing so.
On workforce policy, we are calling for an evidence-led strategy for the whole sector, including the recruitment and retention of teachers and a plan to address shortage subjects.
On funding, we want to see a fair per-pupil settlement that is sufficient, sustainable and equitable and includes weighting for disadvantage. We also need a capital framework to ensure we have enough school places in schools that are safe and conducive to learning.
On accountability, our priority is for proportionate, intelligent and compassionate frameworks of public answerability, inspection and regulation.
Lastly, with regards to support for children, young people, and families, we want to see urgent action on SEND reforms and the critical reform of mental health services and of wider services that address endemic issues like youth violence.
A cross-government poverty plan
The recent PISA report gave us the stark and terrible finding that one in ten pupils report not eating at least once a week because there is not enough money to buy food. Meanwhile, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s recent report, Destitution in the UK in 2023 highlights that there are now more than one million children in the UK living in destitution – that is, living without proper shelter or without enough food.
In December, UNICEF published its own report, Child Poverty in the midst of wealth, which shows that child income poverty rates in the UK are the highest among the world’s richest countries. We rank bottom of the table for changes in those rates over the past decade.
So we urgently need a cross-government strategy to address this crippling issue, which is in strong part driving poor attendance and the attainment gap.
Trust with accountability
Finally, the legitimacy of public institutions is crucial for building peaceful and inclusive societies. Trust is integral to the functioning of society and essential for social and economic progress: in each other, in our public institutions and in our leaders.
Therefore, the next government should move away from the reductionist ‘new public management’ approach to public service reform. Instead, it should reset its relationship with public services and build a new settlement, based on trust with accountability.