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Labour Conference 2013: Education roundup

The debate on the education section of the NPF report, on the first day of Conference, was opened by Peter Wheeler (NEC). Six delegates spoke: three prospective parliamentary candidates and three union delegates (GMB, Unison, Unite). Stephen Twigg replied to ‘discussion’. No teachers, local authority councillors, educational campaigners or university educationalists took part. This session lasted 36 minutes.

Although the nominal purpose of the session was to debate the two sections of the NPF report devoted to education no one spoke for or against anything in the report. It was a debate in name only. Had the speakers read the education section of the NPF report? Did they approve its contents? We will never know.

An innocent observer could be forgiven for wondering why the party that came to power saying that its three priorities were education, education and education could only find 36 minutes of its annual conference for the subject. Such an observer might also be forgiven for wondering how it was that all the Labour Party’s complex policy-making machinery could result in educational material for conference that passes no comment on the transformation of education under the Coalition. Schools have been removed from local authorities and made into “independent” units – often under the aegis of powerful private sponsors. Local Authorities are being progressively removed from the sphere of education and private operators play an increasing role, but none of this seems to figure in Labour’s concerns.

How is it that Labour can present policies on education which do not deal with these problem? The answer has to be that Labour does not think that such things are problems. Labour policy differs from that of the Tories/Coalition on matters of detail (which is not to deny the importance of some of those details) but on basic principles it would not be possible to get a cigarette paper between Tory and Labour Policy.

In opening, Peter Wheeler for the NEC said that Labour wants cooperation in order to produce the best education while the Tories favour division and competition. And yet the reality is that Labour and Conservatives believe that the way forward is to make schools into independent units competing for parental choice. He said that only Labour authorities were resisting Coalition policy. Sadly this is quite untrue. Some Conservative Councils have put up more resistance to Gove’s reforms than some Labour Councils.

Of the three union speakers two spoke about the importance of teaching assistants and the Coalition cuts forcing a reduction in their numbers. This is a good point but there is nothing in the NPF report about this. One speaker called for the abolition of tuition fees in FE/HE but this point was simply ignored as if it had never been said – such was the nature of the ‘debate’.

The prospective parliamentary candidates tried to raise enthusiasm with talk of Labour as the “Party of Aspiration”, denunciations of the Tories on childcare and rising child poverty, the demand for quality apprenticeships and the claim that the economy “must be powered by the many and not the few”. However, this was all speech making to move conference along and none of it had the slightest implication for the NPF report which was supposed to be under consideration.

Stephen Twigg replied to the preceding non-discussion. He talked of growing child poverty and Labour’s plan to provide child care as of right from 8.00 am to 6.00 pm. He denounced the use of unqualified teachers and claimed that Labour’s “mission” was to “place power and wealth in the hands of the many not the few”. This radical sounding statement (which has no reality in Labour policy) was immediately offset by an elitist discussion of opportunity. Success for Stephen Twigg seems to be measured by getting to a “top university” (a phrase he used three times in his eleven minutes on the podium). It seems not to have occurred to him that if a small minority of universities are designated as “top”, then by definition the great majority will not go to them. Someone should tell him that if you focus obsessively on “the best” you forget the rest.

Finally Stephen Twigg repeated Labour’s commitment to providing high quality apprenticeships for all those who do not go to university although he did not tell us how this would be achieved beyond saying that firms with government contracts would be required to provide quality apprenticeships.

For anyone following the dramatic changes to the educational landscape in England the whole debate would have had a strange air of unreality. None of the major political issues of the Gove revolution in our schools were even hinted at. For the moment Labour is still set on the educational course and the educational philosophy set by New Labour. It is a path to fragmentation and division in education. Its basis is in neo-liberal ideology and as far from a democratic and socialist perspective it is possible to be.


  1. P Spence says:

    I made the mistake of watching this “debate” on tv albeit I missed Twigg having fallen to sleep by then.

    Neolieralism is running amoke in education and Labour largely endorses it. That is the sad reality. Schools in many areas now quite viciously compete with each other.

  2. Interestingly the Green Party Conference had similar problems grasping the extent of educational changes and their ideological underpinning. I proposed a motion calling for a review of our GP education policy along with consultation with parents groups, education unions and students in the light of Gove’s revolution but this was rejected. Opponents recommended tabling a series of amendments for Spring 2014 Conference. We need hard-nosed policies in place for the 2014 local elections otherwise local councils will carry on presiding over their own demise as local education authorities and letting the market take over their schools. Reclaim OUR Schools!

  3. Andrew says:

    Shameful I agree. Its dispositions to me that the support staff unions including my own only want to talk about terms and conditions. UNISON has clear policy defending comprensive education and the role of LEA’s and opposing acadmies and free schools. The policy also asks they take this policy into the Labour Party which was completely ignored yesterday. TU need to use the link while we still have it.

  4. Rob the cripple says:

    I do like the flag bring out the English cross and fade the background, this has to be to try and capture the UKIP attempt at being English.

  5. David Pavett says:

    @Rob the cripple

    Yes, like all the nonsense about “British values”. What kind of insulated mentality makes people think that “fairness” is a “British value” as opposed to one valued beyond our borders. I dislike the undertones of chauvinism intensely. What kind of an education is delivered by such talk?

    @Martin Francis

    Interesting comment. I am mildly surprised. Those of us committed to public provision of education under public (democratic) control really have yet to mount a serious fight back. For the moment neo-liberal thinking dominates all. We mustn’t give up. Will you be going to the CASE conference 0n 16th November?

  6. James Martin says:

    “He [Peter Wheeler] said that only Labour authorities were resisting Coalition policy. Sadly this is quite untrue. Some Conservative Councils have put up more resistance to Gove’s reforms than some Labour Councils.”

    Yes, I can confirm this by my own direct expereince. Up until this year (when it became a Lib-Lab coalition) Tory controlled Lancashire, one of the largest English county councils, put up a very fierce fight against Gove’s academies, with the Tory leader at one point writing to him saying that the authority would use the High Court to protect its schools wherever it could where those schools did not want to convert to academy status. He also wrote to schools directly telling them not to let in DfE academy brokers. Gove backed off, and as a result there are still less than 30 academies out of approximately 700 maintained schools in Lancashire.

    Contrast that to Labour controlled Blackpool, a unitary council next door, and while their official policy is to oppose acadamisation, with a few honourable exceptions the Labour group has been happy to encourage as many of their schools as possible to convert. As a result the private vultures and DfE brokers are having a merry time there and the majority of schools have now been lost.

    What Twigg the Twit needs to realise is that this massive privatisation agenda is just happening in England, no other nation in the UK is following and none so far intend to. As a result we are risking education in England being seriously damaged, and a whole generation (or more) put at risk. And yet what has Twigg got to say about this? Absolutely nothing, and it is a shameful scandal that should be leading to all Labour Party members calling for him to resign or be sacked.

  7. swatantra says:

    The more I think about it the more I realise that Scotland is a foreign country. the Enlightenment came earlirer to Scotland than backward England so they have a bit of a head start in terms of Education, Law, Social policy, Welfare, Foreign Affairs, etc. So what I am getting at is that Scotland should actually take over England Wales and NI, and basically run the roost. And we might all be better off.

  8. David Pavett says:


    Novel idea. Might be worth a try.

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