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Why did two Labour MPs back a “more divided and elitist school system”?

Last week, Graham Brady, a former Tory shadow minister, tabled an amendment to the education bill designed to increase the number of academically selective state schools in England. The amendment was signed by 38 MPs, including two from the Labour party – Gisela Stuart and Eric Joyce.  Andy Burnham, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, rightly slammed the amendment for aiming at an “outrageous expansion of selection“and “an ever more divided and elitist school system.” Why are two Labour MPs backing a right-wing proposal too reactionary even for Michael Gove to openly back?

The amendment moved by Graham Brady sought to allow private schools to become academies within the state system and continue to select their pupils on the basis of their ability. At the end of the denbate, faced with the unwillingness of Michae Gove to accept the amendment, and facing certain defeat, he withdrew it promising not to give up his campaign.  Gove’s opposition was, no doubt, in part the result of Lib Dem opposition. Last year he apparently said to Brady, in answer to whether he would allow more selective state schools in areas where parents wanted them:

My foot is hovering over the pedal. I’ll have to see what my co-driver, Nick Clegg, has to say.”

Andy Burnham said:

We know this is what Michael Gove wants, too, but this blatant attempt by his backbenchers reveals that we are in a real battle to protect a fair education system. Labour is fighting for fair admissions for all families while the Tory party are siding with the few, not the many. The Lib Dems need to decide whose side they’re on.”

However, even some Tories are against any return to selection. David Willetts provoked a storm which undermined David Cameron’s attempt to present himself as a ‘moderniser’ when as Tory Shadow Education Secretary he opposed gramar schools for failing to promote social mobility.

Gisela Stewart and Eric Joyce are Labour MPs.


  1. oldpolitics says:

    Regardless of views on the merits of private education and grammar schools in and of themselves, I’m struggling to see how turning private grammar schools into state grammar schools increases division and elitism.

  2. Phil C. says:

    I know little and probably shouldn’t put forward any comment. But, as far as I am aware, Gisela Stuart does a first-class job as a constituency MP. I don’t think she’s a careerist right-wing type. She just acts on behalf of her constituents in Edgbaston (and prevents Edgbaston returning a Tory MP).

  3. Gary Elsby says:

    Oh come on!
    If Edgebaston votes for selection in schools, then Edgebaston is all but lost to Labour.

    ….and yes, we all know what a first class job so and so does as an MP.

    Just count me in for NO selection in schools and count me into any poll for being a Socialist that actually does have principle and is prepared to act on it.

    Selection in schools…for God’s sake!

  4. Elise Groeneveld says:

    I know little about schoolsystems in this country, but in Holland we don’t have, neither support private schools or private education. No selection till your eightteen. For universities there’s a selection based on notes.Better students pay less;that means that if you’re not studying you’ll pay fee or obtain less scolarship.

  5. Tom says:

    Although selective entry to schools is far from ideal, we have to do something to end the divide between state and private schools in the UK and this seems like a sensible suggestion.

    No matter what you think private schools stand for, they have a lot of history and it would be a shame to lose the institutions outright. To bring them into the state sector in this way and open them to everyone sounds a sensible suggestion.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      Err, Tom, I welcome your commitment to doing “something to end the divide between state and private schools” but can’t see how perpetuating their elitism whilst picking up the tab for it does that. And as to having “a lot of history”, so does the aristocracy, poverty and class inequality, and all manner of other things we need to be shot of.

  6. Lox says:

    Hmmm. Do you think, Jon, that private schools should be abolished? If they were, should private tuition then be made illegal?

    The private schools debate is a bit of a red herring in this debate, I think. As far as I know, the most successful education systems in Europe in terms of student attainment are in Germany and Finland-both of which separate into vocational and academic streams. If the left has a problem with a student being assigned into the former, that says something about some weird, paradoxical reaction to being labelled as “working class” (whatever that means) instead of “middle class” (ditto)-we despise the middle classes, but we want kids to have the opportunity to get into it.

    I spent years at university-degree, PhD, postdoc-and I know I’m no brighter than, or socially superior to, the guy who fixed my car last week. I doubt if I’m any better paid either. So what’s the problem with being educated as a potential mechanic from age 14 rather than as a potential lawyer or a journalist or a scientist?

  7. Gisela Stuart’s signature could emanate from her being German – most of the German school system is unreformed and selective, and it is difficult enough to find supporters for ‘Gesamtschule’ – their equivalent of comprehensive schools – in “Die Linke” – the left of centre former Communist Party from the East – than in the SPD – the German equivalent of the Labour Party.

    @oldpolitics When you sau “I’m struggling to see how turning private grammar schools into state grammar schools increases division and elitism” – it makes selective education much easier to reach than only for the lucky few with enough money.

    @Phil C. “Gisela Stuart does a first-class job as a constituency MP”. Ian Duncan Smith was a first-class constituency MP when I lived in Chingford, but I would never vote for him. I’d certainly never vote for a Labour MP who sent his/her kids to a private school, without question.

    @Tom ” it would be a shame to lose the institutions outright” – True – so bring them into the state system and abolish selection. End of story.

    @Lox “most successful education systems in Europe in terms of student attainment are in Germany and Finland” – in terms of absolute results this may be true, but look at the added value scores and the score of pupils who don’t go to “gymnasiums” and you will see that they score worse – MUCH worse, than their opposite numbers in the rest of the EU.

    The trouble is that the Tory press and many a hysterical Labour Party parent don’t give a fig for what is correct, but solely what they think is right for their own child, and sod the rest. Selection may benefit a small number of children academically, but, taken as a whole, the effect is incredibly caustic.

    Personally, I would like to abolish all selection from 0-19 in state schools, and hope that private schools whither on the vine; the recession is peversely already doing us a favour in that respect.

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