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Tristram Hunt promises more of the same

Tristram Hunt 1Given the importance of education in any effort to create a more equal society, it may seem strange that the Labour Party has always found education a difficult issue to handle. The Party has within its ranks many well-informed campaigners for a truly comprehensive and high-quality school system for all (which includes parents, teachers, researchers and local councillors). The Party’s own affiliate, the Socialist Educational Association, also works hard for this objective. The problem is that the Party leaders are unwilling to these as the vital resource that they are for policy development.

The one big educational idea associated with Labour is comprehensive schools. However, Labour only ever implemented the idea in a half-hearted manner leaving a large independent and private sector which ensured that comprehensives were never truly such. This is well explained in Melissa Benn’s School Wars and the Blair/Brown years are analysed in Clyde Chitty’s New Labour and Secondary Education 1994-2010.

At the national level, Labour thinking has rarely got much beyond the idea that education is a good thing and there should be lots more of it. It is true that it has introduced important measures to help children from disadvantaged families to succeed in education but, at the same time, it has been unwilling to challenge the structures that make our education system one of the most socially divisive in Europe. (At local authority level the picture has sometimes been rather better.)  When right-wing rhetoric was based on the need to divide children into educational sheep and goats Labour politicians could counter this with progressive rhetoric about the needs of the great majority.  Now that the right has adopted the that same rhetoric for its own purposes Labour is left without even a distinctive vocabulary.

The problem is that, when it comes to policy rather than rhetoric, Labour is as committed to the same of neo-liberal educational ideas as the Conservatives. Essentially, this amounts to treating schools as independent units (analogous to businesses) which offer their wares on a ‘market’ where parents who can make their choices, thereby, it is claimed “driving up standards”. Schools and pupils are judged through high-stakes testing which in turn are the basis for league tables. Teachers are put on a pedestal as what makes or breaks good education and then knocked off it as soon as things don’t work out. Union-negotiated pay and conditions are undermined, there is an ever greater focus on a few “core subjects” and longer school hours and more homework are proposed. Above all, schools are seen as independent units outside the sphere of local democracy.

Countries like the US and England which have adopted the this approach are not doing well (as indicated by the latest OECD report). Finland has achieved its great results by rejecting the market model and with  98% of children going to their local authority-run comprehensive school. The proof is there. It can be done.

Where is Labour’s newly-appointed Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, in all this? He has little form on educational issues. Politically he associates with the Progress pressure group – he wrote a chapter for its Purple Book. He promoted the idea that the Conservative leader  Disraeli was a “champion of the working class” and a model for Labour’s ‘one-nation’ politics (Disraeli’s concept was based on the working class accepting the aristocracy as their natural superiors). He has written about key figures of the political left such as Marx, Engels, William Morris, and Keir Hardie, but his own thinking clearly does not draw on their ideas. He combines an enthusiasm for mutualism and co-operatives with a rejection of “the Croslandite-New Labour model with its reliance on statist intervention, whether through resource-based redistribution or public service investment…” (The Purple Book, page 68).

In his three years in the post Stephen Twigg resisted all efforts to get him to challenge the basis of the Coalition’s reforms leaving Gove to do pretty much as he pleased. He was, at best, ineffective and his sacking from the Shadow Cabinet was  no surprise.

Hunt’s first major statements on education took the form of an interview with the Mail on Sunday and another on the Andrew Marr Show. In both interviews he made clear his intention of continuing with Twigg’s policies. Labour will support “parent-led academies” i.e. free schools, but will add some restrictions (no more in areas with a surplus of school places, no more use of unqualified teachers) while accepting the principle of schools set up by self-appointed interest groups. Academisation will be unchallenged. Hunt is also even more emphatic than Twigg in his dismissal of local authority involvement (“We are not going to go back to the old days of the local authority running all the schools – they will not be  in charge”). At least Twigg  suggested increased local authority oversight of school standards. Now even that has apparently gone. And Twigg’s on/off consideration of the need for a “middle tier” between central government and schools has dropped out of the picture.

Hunt says that he wants to work with teachers. If so launching in to these arguments without speaking to teachers organisations and educational specialist first was not a good move. Both major teaching unions and the majority of Labours-supporting educational experts are opposed to organising schools into academies and free schools. Has Hunt really had time in his few days in the job to become acquainted with the relevant research? He showed no signs of being aware of it in his interviews.

This situation is disturbing for everyone working for a democratic and inclusive future for education. It is time to reverse the weakening of local government by successive Labour and Conservative governments. Labour make the case for the democracy of local government to be extended and improved making it more open, participative and transparent. Local communities should be actively involved in decisions about education through their local democracy. Early indications are that Tristram Hunt is a long way from this view.


  1. Rod says:

    “Labour is as committed to the same of neo-liberal educational ideas as the Conservatives.”

    And not only neo-liberal educational ideas. This begs the question: why support Labour if you don’t support the same neo-liberal ideas as the Conservative?

    Any Labour supporters care to explain?

  2. David Pavett says:

    If the choice is between a party which bases itself on neo-liberal idea and celebrates the fact and another party which bases itself on the same idea but is a bit shame-faced about it and feels the need to offer palliatives then many of us will go for the second. But its not a good place to be.

    A second reason is that many hold out the hope that the Labour Party could be won over to democratic ideals which make the achieving of a more equal society, with all the massive changes that implies, into its central objective. In other words the vote not for what the Labour Party is but for what they think it could become.

    Is it realistic to think that the Labour Party could take a turn in such a democratic and socialist direction? I am not at all sure myself but political life is full of surprises and it is a safe bet that the Conservatives are not going to make such a change. As for the Lib Dems, well things are not looking good but, as I said, one must be prepared for surprises. Then there is the Greens. It is probably best to keep close tabs on events as they unfold rather than to speculate about the details of what will or will not happen.

  3. Rod says:

    @ David

    Thanks for you frank reply – much appreciated.

    I feel to be in pretty much the same boat – keep close tabs and look for opportunities with fingers crossed for a lucky break…

  4. James Martin says:

    “Both major teaching unions and the majority of Labours-supporting educational experts are opposed to organising schools into academies and free schools”

    Actually the opposition is far wider and far broader. The Anti-Academies Alliance has support/affiliation from NUT, NASUWT, ATL, Unite, GMB and Unison as the TUC unions that cover nearly all teachers and support staff in schools. Meanwhile even the non-TUC affiliate Voice came out last year as officially opposed to both free schools and academies.

    Back to Hunt, while on the one hand the previous rather daft support for academies but opposition to free schools could not hang together (daft because in legal terms they are identical – a free school is merely a ‘starter’ rather than a ‘converter’ academy), he will need to answer key questions about democracy and accountability.

    We have already seen most forms of democratic accountability removed from social housing (when council housing was handed over to the trusts), from local services (via privatisation and outsourcing). The one remaining form of local control (ultimately via the ballot box) was education via maintained schools. Now that has been stripped away in many areas and we are left with schools with no local accountability or control, governors who hold their positions for life (and select their successors) and headteachers who change their title to principal and get a 50% pay rise.

    It’s a scandal, and one that is growing by the day. Questionb is, when will the posh boy get it?

  5. Andrew Old says:

    This all seems to be a classic betrayal narrative, where there is a simple, easy answer and only the treachery of Labour leaders stands in the way of achieving socialist utopia.

    It’s a bit more difficult than this. Private schools only take 7% of the population. There are not even 200 grammar schools. Local authorities often let schools fail. The US did not embrace the market in education the same time we did but a lot later, but it’s education woes started a lot earlier.

    The issues that chime with voters about education are not to do with cutting off middle class escape routes, but providing decent schools for everyone. The left has embarrassed itself by claiming that this can be done by social engineering, and that things like discipline or quality of teaching are just distractions. Labour politicians have not betrayed an ideal, they have just got distracted by more bread and butter issues in education, although even then it has often not been to good effect.

    Of course we can abandon all elements of parental choice, we can simply say to all parents that their children must go to their local comprehensive no matter how bad it is. However, this won’t be some heroic stand for the comprehensive principle, it will be a way of telling parents that we are completely indifferent to the quality of education their child gets.

  6. David Pavett says:

    @Andrew Old

    You say “This all seems to be a classic betrayal narrative, where there is a simple, easy answer and only the treachery of Labour leaders stands in the way of achieving socialist utopia.”

    It is not at all clear to me what might have suggested that view to you in anything that I wrote. I think that educational politics is enormously difficult. Given that what is noticeable about Labour’s approach is the virtual absence of discussion even of things that are commonly discussed outside the Labour Party. The criterion for the people currently responsible for such limited discussion as takes place in the Party is not “Is this an interesting or difficult or important question on which there are different points of view which we need to evaluate?” but rather “If we say this or that what will the response of the press be and what will be the impact on voting figures?”.

    To say that discussion is needed is not to say that the solutions are simple and I have never suggested any such thing. It is, however, to say that the issues need to be discussed and that is not currently happening in the Labour Party, despite the importance of education.

    The issue of “parent-led academies” as opposed to free schools illustrates this perfectly. There has been widespread comment in press based on the view that the former is a euphemism for the latter. Free school leaders like Toby Young have said as much.

    So, I wrote to Stephen Twigg when he was still in post as Labour Shadow Education Secretary to ask for an explanation of the difference. No answer.

    I wrote several times to Kevin Brennan as Labour Shadow Schools Minister to ask the same. I have had two promises of a reply but never yet a reply.

    What, in all honesty do you think that is about?

    You say “private schools take only 7% of the population”. Only? 7% is massive. That is enough to distort an entire education system. I can only wonder that the figure of 7% (1 in every 14) seems to you to be a matter of no concern. The same goes for the existence of 200 grammar schools.

    I agree with you that some local authorities let schools fail. That seems to me to be an argument for changing local authorities and not for making schools into independent institutions not answerable to local democracy.

    You say that marketising solutions to education problems took hold in the UK before the USA but you don’t give any information. In fact the Charter school movement got under-way in the 1990s whereas the academy reforms in the UK were launched in 2000.

    I could not agree more when you say “The issues that chime with voters about education are … [about] providing decent schools for everyone.”

    You follow this with the claim that “The left has embarrassed itself by claiming that this can be done by social engineering … [and that] discipline or quality of teaching are just distractions.” This is, I am afraid just rank nonsense for which there is no evidence.

    You interpret my position, and more generally left critics, as saying that people should send their kids to the local school however bad it is. In fact my position, and I believe that of the left generally, is that no bad schools are acceptable and that mechanisms can and should be set into place to ensure that all schools are good schools. If they can do it in Finland then so can we.

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