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Education for a One Nation Society

classroomLabour’s recently issued One Nation Society document is as a clear an indication as one can find about the policies which will be in the election manifesto for 2015. It is a 60-page document of which 8 pages are given to education.

In the second paragraph we read “One Nation Labour will put raising the quality of teaching at the heart of its mission to reform the education system.” This has an apple pie and motherhood ring to it, but its real meaning is not so banal. It as if there was a great national debate about the poor state of the mines and the inadequate nature of its many disparate management regimes and we were to be told that a one-nation response is to focus on the quality of miners. The quality of teachers line has become for Labour a great distraction from the great structural problems of English education.

This document, joins with the rest of the political and journalistic world in the uncritical use of PISA statistics. In effect it is adding to our existing school league tables this international league table as an alleged driver of improvement. This is a big mistake as Peter Wilby and other have warned. Labour’s education team has so far not given the slightest indication of having examined the value of the PISA tables. This abdication of duty is contributing to the reduction of education debate to the task of headline grabbing.

It is claimed that “Standards tend to improve when parents demand more from their local schools.” without the slightest evidence (it is meant to seem so obvious that data is not required) and without the slightest examination of what other factors might contribute equally or more than parental pressure. It was not parental pressure that led to the introduction of citizenship into the curriculum.

One Nation Labour rightly criticises the viability of running over half the nations secondary schools directly from Westminster, but I doubt that Gove ever thought that was a long-term solution. It was a medium-term solution to carrying out a dramatic reform of our education system. In the absence of any substantial political opposition it has achieved its objectives.

Everyone knows that some sort of middle tier is required between central government and schools. It used to be, and still is to some extent, local authorities. But such a direct link is unsurprisingly not within Gove’s field of vision. More disconcertingly it is not within Labour’s field of vision either, as David Blunkett made clear in a Guardian interview in which he announced what Labour would and would not do as a result of his Inquiry (interestingly, he felt able to do so even before his report was completed and delivered).

Labour rightly rejects the Coalition’s sink or swim approach to school management but it is a matter of real concern that we are still waiting for Labour’s proposals for local oversight and involvement in schools.

It is even more worrying that Labour’s solution to the divide set up by Gove between local authority schools and the new academies is by “extending to all schools the freedoms academies currently enjoy …”. In other words these “freedoms” which were based on the idea of schools as individual units competing for custom in an educational market will be extended to all schools. As if this were not already bad enough Tristram Hunt has called for “performance-related pay” for teachers. All this illustrates only too clearly the continued hold of neo-liberal thought on Labour’s policy making. We should note too that among the “freedoms” that Labour is proposing should be extended to all schools is the freedom for each school to set its own salaries and conditions of service for teachers.

Labour is right to criticise the Coalition for approving free schools in areas with a surplus of school places but this must not hide Labour’s cave-in on free schools. By the simple device of a change of name Labour now clearly supports free schools under the title of “parent-led academies”.

Similarly Labour is right to demand high quality vocational qualifications for the “forgotten fifty per cent”. But where are its proposals? For that too we must wait for another Inquiry (led by Chris Husband) which like Blunkett’s Review will report only in time to be considered by the upper reaches of the Party before deciding what should go in the manifesto.

The world envisioned by One Nation Society is one of “responsible capitalism”. It is one which will continue to be divided on class lines and in which the rich will continue to obtain a separate education for their children through the private school system. That is the first great fracture in the notion of education for a one-nation society. This social fracture is so far from being questioned that it is not even mentioned.

Secondly, the fragmentation of our already disparate school system by the Coalition under the energetic leadership of Michael Gove (in the virtual absence of opposition from Labour) will be accepted as a new baseline by Labour. As Tristram Hunt put it in his Institute of Education speech last month: “we are not overly interested in passing judgement on different school types”. The “one nation society” therefore will accept not only that children are divided into different schools on the basis of their parent’s wealth but also on the basis of their (alleged) religious beliefs.

Is this really the best we can do for education in a one-nation society?

Image credit: darrinhenry / 123RF Stock Photo

3 Comments

  1. Bill Williamson says:

    This piece is depressing but not surprising. Labour education policy – and it’s no different in the other parties – is locked in a a twentieth century model of schooling and education when the problems of this century demand something radically different. We need first a stronger set of values e.g. that education for democracy is more important than education for individual achievement or economic growth. We need leaders with imagination e.g. to conceive of an defend ideas such as lifelong learning or schools as learning hubs for civil society and work organisations. We need to think of teachers as educators and to help them collaborate with educators in other settings e.g. the wold of work and to acquire the IT skills for new ways of teaching and learning. Above all, however- and this is sadly lacking – we need those who seek political leadership to be brave and honest: brave to offer a radical diagnosis of what is wrong with our urgent system – and especially the social inequalities built into it – and honest enough to speak their mind even if that risks upsetting the powerful groups that benefit from current arrangements.

  2. SANDRA CRAWFORD says:

    This is such a regressive step, and will lead to gross inequalities in the quality of education received by the children.
    It goes against all the evidence of the past. I remember my children getting excellent A level results six to eight years ago. Around this time the papers were reporting records in A level grade achievement. This came when the peak causes (in my opinion) reached a culmination.
    My children benefited from the equality of an excellent LEA comprehensive school where children could achieve according to their ability only, and they benefited from the regulation of the SATs tests.
    These did raise standards and could be varied by imaginative teachers.
    Now they are allowing schools more freedoms, which often leads to lower quality at the bottom end. It can lead to irrationality at the religious end. Non academy schools get less money and parents reject them, they get left with pupils who are more difficult to teach, and get less from the system. (My daughter has tried to teach in such a school).
    Taking schools out of local authority control gives parents less power. They have no one to complain to if something goes wrong. Local authorities help regulate schools and their intake, encouraging equality. Self regulation will encourage selection, and encourage inequality. This will get worse when more schools are privatised.
    Allowing schools to set teachers pay is a direct attack on teachers and their unions. It is a divide and rule set up. Teachers are much more likely to get decent pay through national collective bargaining. Having pay set by local trusts or the head teacher will make it much more difficult to get fair pay.
    The whole philosophy behind this is very reactionary, lead to all sorts of unfairness and inequalities. The Tories are doing it with privatisation in mind. When our so called Labour Party take up these ideas, one can only conclude that they are false neoliberals in Labour clothing or that they are totally deluded about what the Labour Party is really for.

  3. James Martin says:

    Labour’s policy has been reactionary for quite some time. Yes, Hunt is slightly more intelligent than the utterly useless Twigg, but in a sense that makes him more dangerous.

    And quite why they have for a while now come out in some cases very strongly against free schools but equally strongly for academies is beyond me. They are after all two names for the same legal entity under the 2010 Act, the only difference being that free schools are starter rather than converter academy schools.

    Gove’s long term plan is to have large academy chains playing the role of LA’s. The problem is that so far this is not going to well, with the living it large snouts in the trough bosses at E-Act having just been slapped down (after 4 years of regular reports of sleaze), while other ‘problems’ appear at the likes of Harris.

    All the while religious apartheid continues to grow unchecked. This may be the subject of a philosophical debate in the leafy suburbs, but in the sort of northern towns where I live that means we now have Muslim schools that are 100% Asian and other local schools that are 100% white, and that change has been historically speaking very rapid compared to the existence of Asian communities themselves. The future of social cohesion (or more likely the complete lack of it) does not bear thinking about – and you who is challenging this disaster in the making?

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