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Stephen Twigg: a policy of non policy?

If you wanted any more evidence that the Tories wanted to turn the clock back to about 1930, look no further than this week’s announcement of the Ebacc (the Gove level).

Just as my dad (who’s in his 80s) had to complete a school certificate – a bundle of different subjects – 21st century school leavers will have to pass exams in a selection of disciplines from English to pure maths, physics and chemistry in order to go on to further study at A Level.

Obviously I think this is very bad. Why should someone who is very bad at science but a genius at writing or languages be deprived of a chance at higher education? Or why should a maths prodigy be put in the educational dustbin because they can’t spell very well?

It all seems nuts. Or very ideological – let’s narrow down even further the number of people we think deserve to get given a chance to get an education. It stinks.

I could bore on for ever about how terrible the Tory attitude is towards education and the young. But I think I’ve done that a million times already.

But what about Labour?

Obviously Tony’s 90s mantra was “Education, Education, Education” and there’s no doubt that Labour did get more kids going to university and spent more money on the education system. They also created a target culture (which all teachers hate) and continued the Tory obsession with League tables.

And then Tony’s chum Lord Adonis came up with the bright idea for creating Academies – schools that would be taken out of local authority control and funded directly by central govenment (often with money from business as well). These were failing schools – often in the inner city – like Hackney Downs school which became the super successful Mossbourne Academy.

Obviously Gove loves academies – so much that he wants all schools to become them.

But what would Labour do?

This was at the heart of a debate I attended (as part of a Labour Party meeting) on Tuesday night. The speakers were none other than Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg and Fiona Millar, whose Local Schools Network is a fierce defender of comprehensive education.

I had mixed feelings towards Twigg. Back in 97 (I know I keep on harking back to that year) he was a hero when he knocked out the dreaded Michael Portillo in the constituency of Enfield and Southgate. How we all cheered! Now I rather like Michael Portillo – he makes thoughtful programmes for BBC4 while my feelings towardsTwigg are somewhat ambivalent.

First of all he is President of Progress, a Blairite wing of the Labour party, so far to the right that it’s angered many in the party like nothing else.

That is not great news in itself, if like me you believe that Labour needs to create policies that help middle and lower income voters survive rather than pander to the needs of multi national corporations and the super rich. Then Twigg has recently been in the news for announcing that Labour would bring in military schools – (apologies for linking to this rather loathesome piece by the loathesome Dan Hodges).

So obviously I was curious to see Twigg. Like Progress’s Richard Angell, he seemed pleasant and reasonable and like Angell, he was very aware of potential hostility from the assembled audience of Holborn & St Pancras CLP. He was polite and thoughtful about selection, the charitable status of private schools, academies, Gove, the school leaving age – you name it.

But what did he actually say? It was quite hard to discern any policy in amongst his reasonable words – in fact his stated position was a policy of non policy. Which seems a crazy way of opposing a zealot like Gove, who churns out bizarre educational ideas on a daily basis.

Underneath the Gove rhetoric of ‘rigour’ and ‘standards’ is a clear programme of privatisation; he receives donations from edubusiness and this is driving his agenda. Labour should be unequivocally opposing this and pledge to put all academies back under local authority control. This makes them democatically accountable to their communities once more.

I’d also like to see Labour making it clear why kids need to go to school. Some will be academic, some will be creative, some will be technical, some will be bored stiff and hate every minute of it. But all these kids need basic skills and I want to see a brave programme tackling the shocking problems young people have with writing their native language. I want personal tutors for kids in state schools. I want to see young people given the tools to become powerful, active citizens of the future.


  1. P SPENCE says:

    Your article is nicely juxtaposed with a piece about low trust in politics and MPs. How is party policy determined on education and how do party members have any influence over it? Twigg said little because he could get away with it in front of a CLP. We can infer that his position is close to Gove and Adonis and antagonistic towards the idea of comprehensive education which of course is held dear by the vast majority of party members.

    Our MPs are not accountable to the Party and no doubt if they were made so a good number would jump ship as they did in the early 80s. Without the check and transparency of real party democracy, MPs too readily fall to opportunism and careerism. Re-selection say every 5 years by local CLPs would move us more towards MPs having a delegative function and away from the nebulous representative role that allows them to do and say what they please without reference to members. In other words, Bennism as far as the Party is concerned needs reviving.

  2. Mary Lloyd Southampton councillor says:

    As Lucy Reese points out, Gove’s exams policy will take us back to the ’30s (in keeping with his government’s whole economic and fiscal policies).
    My dad, like hers, failed the 6-subject School Cert, in 1934. He passed everything except French. This faced his father, shop-steward of the boilermakers’ union on Devonport dockyard, with the heart-breaking necessity to tell his only son: ‘I can’t do it, lad. I’d sorted out keeping you for two more years for the Highers (A-Level equivalent) even though it would have been hard, but I can’t do three.’ So dad joined the family trade and became an apprentice boiler-maker.
    Of course, in comparison with today’s 16-year-olds, he was lucky: skilled, demanding manual jobs were still available and he completed 4 years of Dockyard ‘School’ (a day a week and thrown out at the end of the year if you didn’t come up to the mark). He made it. Came 4th among all the Year 4 dockyard apprentices across the 7 national sites in Maths. If it hadn’t been 1938, the union would almost certainly have found him a place at Ruskin. As it was, he came through the war unscathed, as a technical developer for the Admiralty, and passed the Civil Service exam before I was born.
    How lucky he was, in comparison with the children of today’s ‘working’ class families! Gove seems totally determined to compound his government’s failure to re-grow industry by destroying any routes to intellectual and skills development for all but the offspring of the ten per cent who ‘benefit’ from being educated at £25,000+p.a. in classes of 12 at public schools.
    As a career teacher of Secondary English who taught entirely in ‘deprived’ council estates communities for 30 years and saw many of my students go on to first and Masters degrees, I despair for my grandsons’ future.

  3. David Pavett says:

    Is it such a bad idea that school education is thought of in terms of a balanced suite of different subjects? I don’t think that Gove’s Ebacc is balanced but, on the other hand I think that it is a mistake to reject the idea in reaction to what he is doing. We should start from a different place. What sort of education is likely to be most helpful in equipping people to lead full lives including being active participants in political and social life. That must surely include a good level of English and maths along with many other things. I suggest that educational programmes should be designed on that basis and that the pic’n mix approach that has been the mark of our system.

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