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Education: a tale of two conferences

Now that both the Conservative and Labour Annual Conferences are over it is worth comparing their respective treatments of education. Let’s start with some raw data. The Tories gave twice as much time to their education debate as Labour (78 as opposed to 36 minutes). This difference was reflected in the leaders’ speeches: Ed Miliband didn’t mention education, David Cameron gave it specific attention.

These facts by themselves prove nothing although they provide a reasonable ground for concern for those of us who were already worried about Labour’s lack of direction on education and its lack of resistance to the changes led by Gove. Those concerns are reinforced when we consider the conferences in more detail.

Labour’s debate was a low key affair. Six speakers spoke for a few minutes each. They touched on the reduction in the number of teaching assistants, the cost of childcare, better training opportunities and more apprenticeships. The one off-message contribution was a call for the restoring the Educational Maintenance Allowance and the abolish of tuition fees in FE/HE but the ‘debate’ was such that this was simply ignored. There was talk, from a couple of prospective parliamentary candidates, of the “Party of aspiration” and of an economy “powered by the many and not by the few”. No teachers or education specialists spoke. Nothing gave the impression of a party with an alternative educational policy and members itching to implement it.

In closing the session Stephen Twigg spoke about child poverty, Labour’s commitment to Sure Start and announced an 8.00am – 6.00pm childcare plan for parents of primary school children. He dealt with the shortage of primary places, increasing size of primary schools, the use of unqualified teachers and the decline in the careers service. Labour would restore AS levels and introduce a Technical Baccalaureate. Rather more surprisingly he said that Labour would ensure that all 18 year-olds would either have a place in HE or a job with a quality apprenticeship. There were and are no details as to how this would be achieved.

The issues dealt with in the session were all worthwhile in themselves but none of them touched on the revolution taking place in our school system. Instead conference was told “The Tories will tell us that we shouldn’t aim high for all”. This is, of course, nonsense. The Tories and Labour now use an almost identical rhetoric of “aspiration”, “helping the most disadvantaged”, “helping all to achieve whatever their background”, “enabling working class children to get to top universities” etc., etc. Attacking the Tories for what they do not say rather than for what they actually say and do is not a sign of great intelligence.

The session was not a good advert for Labour. The Tory educational show was quite another matter. It was well planned and brilliantly staged. There were six speakers, as with the Labour conference, but given the time to develop their themes rather than just make a few points. It was well choreographed. We had an MP, a writer and broadcaster, a US trade unionist who campaigns for performance related pay, the founder of a Free school, a parent from that free school and finally one of its pupils. All the speakers spoke with passion about their ideas and their experiences (even if the views they attacked were caricatures only). Their theme, and Gove’s, (contra Twigg) was that all can achieve with the right opportunities. Stephen Twigg has not understood that Tory rhetoric and tactics have moved on from the Black Paper message of the last century.

Michael Gove is clearly enjoying Labour’s disarray and ineffectiveness on education. He praised Labour politicians Andrew Adonis and Diane Abbott for their sensible views. He was heartbroken by the action of “militant unions” depriving children of a day’s education thereby hitting out at the most vulnerable. He lauded performance-related pay and the independence of schools free at last to make their own decisions. He praised his ministers for their work in their various areas. All in all someone with little knowledge of educational arguments could not but be impressed by the sense of purpose, the success stories and the sheer “common sense” of giving people the freedom to make their own choices.

The reality is, of course, entirely different. Academies have not achieved the successes claimed, schools have been removed from the influence of democracy, league tables and competition provide ever greater pressure to fiddle the books, teachers are more and more reduced to the status of educational operatives who are expected to do what they are told and the Inspectorate increasingly acts as an arm of government. And all the while more and more pathways to privatisation are being opened up.

The failure of Labour’s conference to offer a critique of this fundamental revolution was a disgrace. Labour education policy is still stuck in a New Labour rut. Windy rhetoric about aspiration and opportunities for all won’t do. The Tories have learned to do that and they do it better. They have joined it to to their anti-union and marketising stance. They are creating a state system broken up into competing independent units. This is consistent with their view that markets always make the best decisions. For the moment Labour shares this marketising vision. But a system based on competing state-supported independent schools is not a one-nation policy. It is bound to lead to fragmentation and social division. We need a change of vision from Labour.


  1. Robert says:

    No argument from me sadly Labour is stuck in the new labour mode in a lot of areas because of course Miliband came up within the New Labour route and sadly Twigg is not the answer, same as Byrne in Welfare.

    That’s politics for you.

  2. James Martin says:

    Twigg is gone! Absolutely fantastic news, he won’t be missed. In fact I’ve forgotten him already 🙂

  3. David Pavett says:

    Yes, I am delighted to see the back of Twigg. He was worse than useless in education.

    As for Tristram Hunt (the historian who wants us to believe that Disraeli was a “champion of the working class”) I am apprehensive but we will see. He has no particular form on education as far as I can see. He has made a big thing of calling for a better careers service which is fair enough but where does he stand on the transformations being brought about by Gove? I have no idea and that in itself is worrying.

    Another worrying sign is that he was a contributor to the Progress Purple Book. In it he claimed that the opposition between neo-liberal capitalism and “traditional socialism” is absurd and went on to resolve the issue by claiming that we can choose the sort of capitalism we want (socialism traditional or otherwise apparently not being worthy of further mention).

    We will see, and I suspect that it won’t take long. All of which said it would be difficult to be worse than Twigg.

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