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Has Labour abandoned education?

we don't need no educationEducation is like apple pie and motherhood: everyone agrees it is a good thing. The problem is that “education” refers not to one thing but to a wide range of different arrangements serving very different social needs. A highly stratified hierarchical society is likely to have a similarly differentiated hierarchical system of education. A society committed to democracy and to making citizens equal, not only in terms of formal opportunity, but in the reality of their material circumstances will, of course, need something very different.

So, Tony Blair’s “Education, education, education” quip in response to a request for his top three priorities might have sent off caring signals and a desire to better everyone’s lives but, a closer look reveals something different. Such a look has been taken by Clyde Chitty in his unfortunately priced (£50) book New Labour and Secondary Education 1994-2010.

Chitty actually takes a wider brief than his title indicates. He shows that even since the 1944 Education Act Labour has had real difficulties in thinking about education in anything other than the most abstract terms. The closest Labour came to thinking in a coherent way about education was probably with its Opening Doors paper of 1994 under John Smith. (Ann Taylor, the Shadow Education Secretary at the time was soon sidelined after Blair became leader because of her strong support for a comprehensive schooling system).

But from all that erstwhile debate about the future of education we have now reached a low point in Labour’s never strong commitment to creating a truly comprehensive system of education. From “Education, education, education” we have entered an era when Labour has abandoned the issue to the Tories. Gove is making all the running. Labour only puts up token resistance. Steven Twigg was stunningly unimpressive but his successor (Tristram Hunt) seems to be even weaker.

Labour’s problem is that it shares so most of the neo-liberal agenda for education with the Tories. According to that agenda, educational standards are improved by market mechanisms (diversity of provision, parental choice). It is clearly not a matter of bringing about more democratic participation in local government educational decision making, raising the level of training and education of teachers, and democratising school governance. It is rather to de-couple schools from local democracy and make them into competing units in an educational market in which “consumer choice” will “drive up standards”. What would be the basis of Labour opposition to the Gove-led reforms? They are an extension of Labour’s own agenda.

According to Labour’s Andrew Adonis, right-wing guru and self-proclaimed architect of the academy school movement, academy schools are the new comprehensives. He and Gove claim that academies democratise education taking the very best to the most deprived sections of the community.

I believe this argument to be completely fallacious and that there is plenty of easily available evidence to the contrary, but that is not the main point that I want to make here. That point is that Labour arguments about education are so weak and so little differentiated from the Tories that the Labour leadership shows every sign of having abandoned the field of education as far as the political battle for 2015 is concerned.

How else can one explain the paucity of Labour material on education three and a half years into the most thorough-going revolution in our education system since WWII? Search for educational material on Labour’s policy discussion website Your Britain. Labour’s proposals are confined to

  1. a recommendation for military-sponsored academies for deprived areas,
  2. a paper on speaking/debating skills,
  3. a weak and contradictory document on vocational education and apprenticeships, and
  4. a piece on childcare.

Look down the list of topics for discussion on the Your Britain website. Education is not even there. Click on Schools and you will be taken to a page that offers a document on childcare and nothing else (the site is not even properly cross-referenced!). There is nothing on universities. And remember that the argument between the Tories and Labour is only whether the maximum for tuition fees should be £6000 or £9000 p.a.

Labour has abandoned education. In doing so it is abandoning a generation to a fragmented school structure in which children will go to different institutions

  1. on the basis of the wealth of their parents (7% of children go to private school),
  2. their parent’s (alleged) religious affiliations, and
  3. their parents ability to select the “best” schools and to make arrangements for their children to get to them.

The incompatibility of all this with the development of an education system designed for a democratic society will be clear to anyone who thinks about it Labour is so far from discussing these problems honestly in an informed way that it is difficult not to conclude that it is part of the problem rather than part of the solution.


  1. eric clyne says:

    The debate on education in Britain is ALWAYS about structure, management and ownership of schools. It’s grammar schools, comprehensives, public, free and so on.

    It is perfectly possible to have excellent or rubbish schools under ANY of these systems.

    The debate we should be having in this country is about method and content. In other words what we teach and how we teach it.

    Michael Gove at least knows how to argue his case, even though it is old-fashioned and unlikely to achieve much. He wants facts taught to specified standards by teacher-centred methods based upon exposition. That is straightforward enough.

    The question is. What does Labour want? I have no idea.

    Do they want teacher-centred methods? Learner-centred methods? Process-centred methods? A combination of the three? If so, how?

    Why do we have so little factual content in English curricula? Surely factual texts are as important as poetry? Why are we not teaching arithmetic by rote – the easiest way to each computation?

    Why does history centre upon worship of the UK, its empire and its rulers?

    Why are we asking children for opinions about things they are not yet competent to judge?

    Our education is in a state of confusion. Always there is structural change, changes in examinations and testing. But there is very little, indeed almost no discussion about education itself – what we teach and how we teach it.

    By focussing upon structure and management we have reduced the education debate to one of ideological positioning. The result is the confused and degenerating system that we have.

  2. Ed Davie says:

    There’s actually a really good story to tell about council-run schools particularly in inner-London where they used to be awful. My own borough Lambeth now has the eighth best schools in the country and Islington has the best and both having higher than average exam results despite relative poverty and high levels of English as a second language. Labour academies were part of that transformation but Gove’s reforms seriously threaten progress. The DfE has just bought the Brixton College site and looks set to build an Opus Dei free school with a Clapham-only catchment area essentially taking money from our poorer kids and giving it to wealthy religious extremists.

    Personally i would like to see Labour embrace high quality comprehensive education, empower councils to properly plan education in their area and end the charitable status of private schools.

  3. David Pavett says:

    @eric clyne

    It is simply not the case that “the debate on education is ALWAYS about structure, management and ownership of schools”. There is a vast literature dealing with what we teach and how we teach it. I could mention such authors as Michael White (an early advocate on the left of a national curriculum), Brian Simon (who fought the early battle against IQ ideology) and Richard Pring (who has discussed the issues of content in detail) and there are hundreds of others.

    You say that it is perfectly possible to have good or bad schools under any system. It is certainly possible to have bad schools under under any system. The extent to which it is possible to have good schools under any system is a rather more moot point. The history of comprehensive education has been bedevilled by the fact that they have always been in competition with other schools (grammar, private, religious). In other words they have never been truly comprehensive. So the Labour mantra that it is “standards not structures” that matter, and which you seem to echo, is, in my view, highly questionable.

    I agree with you about Gove. The man has an ideology and how ever wrong he may be (very) he has a clear perspective. The same cannot be said of Labour or its educational spokespersons.

    @Ed Davie

    You are right that there are good stories to tell about council-run schools and it is to the dying shame of Labour that, as a Party, it has not made a point of telling these stories (beyond personal anecdotes).

    Melissa Benn gives a good account of both the successes and failures of local authority schools in her book School Wars.

    I could not agree more when you say “Personally i would like to see Labour embrace high quality comprehensive education, empower councils to properly plan education in their area and end the charitable status of private schools.”

  4. James Martin says:

    Gove, like many others, believes he knows all about running schools because he once went to one. I had my tonsils out when I was 6, but I would not now argue that this means I know all about how a hospital should be run.

    And the problem is that for all his undoubted stupidity (just about everything he has had a hand in at DfE has gone massively wrong or over-budget), Twigg was a complete tool and Hunt has previously adopted too much of the middle-class bias to be effective.

    And you can’t help but think that the massively middle-class and independent school dominated PLP is the reason for a complete lack of understanding of education outside of the sound-bite. Burnham is probably the only shadow-cabinet member who has a grasp of the issues and dangers (his older brother runs an FE college which helps), but isn’t given the brief (although in fairness most of us want him to stay in health).

    So Gove is allowed to continue with his plans to destroy democratically accountable and controlled state education and replace it with privately run schools via academies.

    Interestingly the area with the lowest amount of academies (Lancashire CC – around 27 out of 700+ maintained schools) managed to fight him off by dint of having until recently a Tory leadership who were essentially anti-academy, and whose leaders threatened Gove with the High Court over forced academisation. It remains to be seen how successful the current Labour-Lib Dem regime will be, but so far the signs are encouraging as most school leaders and governors now understand academies for the dangerous things that they are and will not go down the road to them willingly.

    There is huge potential in fighting Gove for the Party, in exposing the dangers of the free market that is academisation, of exposing what has gone wrong in places like Sweden who now regret their own privatisation dash in state education, in making the most of the Finnish experience whose results soared after pay for teachers was increased and their equivalent of OFSTED disbanded (while we have to put of with endless attacks on teachers from the seemingly constantly drunk Willshaw).

    But who amongst the shadow cabinet is capable, given Hunt is almost certainly not?

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