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Four oddities of Labour education policy

11640840_sThe Labour Party’s declared aim is to build a “one-nation society” with a “one-nation economy” and a “one-nation education system”. What would a “one-nation education system” look like? Clearly, there can be many different solution to such a complex problem but some general principles would need to apply in all cases. With this in mind there are some decidedly odd features of Labour policy for England. Some are listed below  – private schools, faith schools, LEAs and Tristram Hunt.

Oddity No. 1: Private schools

One basic principle would surely be that the children in a “one-nation Britain” would not be channelled into different institutions on the basis of their parents social status (wealth). The clear implication is that the designers of anything answering to the description of a one-nation education system would not include a facility for the well-to-do to send their children to special schools which put them apart from the rest of the nations children.

Currently around 7% of children go to private schools. Does Labour recognise this as an obstacle to creating a one-nation system? Not a bit of it. The issue of private schools is simply not something that can be discussed in Labour circles. It is, for example, not even mentioned in the draft education policy (Education and Children) currently awaiting comments and amendments from CLPs and affiliated organisations.

Oddity No. 2: Faith schools

Another basic principle should be that children will not be separated from each other on the basis of the particular belief system of their parents. We live in a pluralistic and multicultural democracy and most of us on the left don’t have a problem with that. But if, behind all the details, education is to have a deep central purpose, then this should be that it aims to help children to think for themselves. This means that they should not be channelled in to separate institutions on the basis of an assumed religious identity i.e. on the assumption that values need no stronger justification than biological lineage.

This is bad enough in itself but the long-term implications in terms of harmful ethnic social division can be imagined by anyone who cares to think about it. But faith schools are another no-go area in Labour discussion. It is not even a matter of calling for the immediate abolition of faith schools – all sorts of transitional arrangements, even over an extended period, can be imagined. The question is nowhere discussed even as a matter of principle.

Oddity No.3: Local accountability

It is obvious to virtually everyone that in country as large is Britain, and even for the purposes of education, of its English component, it is not acceptable as a long-term solution that all schools should be answerable directly to central government rather than to local communities. Gove knows that. Everyone knows that. The solution is another matter. Gove has appointed regional school commissioners to take on the middle-tier responsibility – a typical bureaucratic solution.

You might be forgiven for thinking that the best and also the most obvious way of democratically linking schools to local people would be through the institution of local government. That is not obvious to Labour which has dithered on this issue for four years and even now when we are supposed to be discussing Labour’s draft policy document on education it still has not made up its mind and we are waiting for a report from David Blunkett which will only be received when it is too late to take it into account in the so-called consultation on the draft policies.

Oddity No. 4: Tristram Hunt

If Labour believes in a truly one-nation education policy then you would expect Labour’s leading figure on education (the Shadow Secretary of State for Education) to show all the signs of a deep commitment to educational policy and to a one-nation approach to schools. If you imagine that to be the case then you probably have not been following educational discussion.

Tristram Hunt is arguably the most reactionary person ever to have occupied the position of Labour’s leader on education. It was not his choice to attend private school so we should not hold that against him. The choice he makes for his own children, however, is his and he has declined to commit to sending them to a state school (something that even Cameron has been able to do).

He has made teachers the focal issue for educational policy by stating many times that the quality of educational provision begins and ends with the quality of teachers. This is patently false since the system that they work within has great bearing on what they are able to achieve. This focus on teachers is a standard right-wing distraction from the pressing problems of education.

Tristram Hunt has also come out in favour of another favourite right-wing theme: performance-related pay for teachers even though the evidence is strongly against such a policy and, for that reason, is opposed by the unions.

As for unions, Tristram Hunt does part-time teaching without joining one and recently showed himself willing to cross a picket line of his colleagues at Queen Mary College.

And above all a Labour educational leader with the slightest feel for democracy would question the principle of privately sponsored state schools and above all of privately sponsored academy chains. None of any of this is mentioned in Labour’s draft policy document.

That is why I proposed some far-reaching amendments.

Image Credit: 123RF by Dmitriy Shironosov Image ID : 11640840


  1. Bernie Evans says:

    Having witnessed Tristram Hunt`s early efforts as Labour`s shadow education secretary, it`s probably time for a simple list of do`s and don`ts:

    If privately educated, don`t presume to know much about state education, especially if your knowledge is going to be based on government propaganda and the media`s version of everyday life in state schools; neither will be accurate.
    When asked about the school destination of your children, don`t obfuscate with answers like “never rule out what takes place”; you will be rightly ridiculed, and the assumption will be that you prefer private education, even though you aspire to take charge of all state schools.
    Don`t even think of supporting such a totally inappropriate idea for schools as Performance Related Pay; it will reveal ignorance of how children learn and achieve. For example, is the teacher who taught a sixth form A-level history group, which achieved ten A*s, necessarily the person who inspired their ambition or subject interest, or the teacher who improved their literacy and evaluation skills, or taught evidence analysis, or even the same teacher who taught them for GCSE and enabled the Advanced study to take place?
    Don`t add to the burden and stress of teaching, when Ofsted, league tables, examination results, parental pressure and internal inspections make a new system of re-licensing teachers totally unnecessary.
    Don`t think that the undoing of the current government`s education legislation will be unwelcome because it will mean yet more change; pick out the most damaging and pledge to repeal them at the earliest possible opportunity.
    As Labour spokesperson for education, show your commitment to social mobility by promoting all ideas which will enhance the life chances of all pupils and students, regardless of their gender, race or wealth. Consider re-instating both the EMA to help students from poor backgrounds afford staying on for A-levels, and the modular A-levels with AS exams, coursework, and resit opportunities. Remember your party`s belief in equality of opportunity.
    Insist that all state schools only employ qualified teachers, but you need to brush up on the reasons; teaching is not just about the transfer of knowledge, as many who support schools having unqualified experts or experienced people as teachers seem to think. The PGCE programme is excellent for giving would-be teachers insights into the ways children learn, the psychology and sociology of education, as well as classroom experience.
    Show support for teachers and their unions as they try to resist cuts in pay, increased pension contributions, and worsening conditions of service, even when they are forced to resort to industrial action. Have regular meetings with the leaders of the teaching unions.
    Appearances on media outlets, articles in newspapers and such-like are fine as long as on each occasion you take the opportunity to acknowledge the improvements in state school education that has taken place over the last twenty years, largely because of improved teaching and the hard work of enthusiastic teachers.
    Be firm in your support for Ofsted to inspect all free schools and academies, and consider whether it is appropriate, these days, for Ofsted to inspect only half of schools in the private sector. Bear in mind that some brilliant schools, with very challenging pupils, should not necessarily be placed in special measures if progress is not up to national averages; think of the damage caused when that happens, both to the self-esteem of hard-working teachers and of the pupils, proud of their school and their achievements. In order for there to be an average, someone has to achieve less than others, and that`s not necessarily anyone`s fault!
    Call a halt to the expansion of the free school programme and academisation of state schools, and reconsider the role of the local education authority.
    Stop implying that only students educated in private schools develop “character and resilience”; state schools produce fully-rounded characters, full of wit, compassion, kindness, determination, and ambition, fully able to analyse and evaluate, and to spot the duplicity of politicians. A Labour front-bencher going through picket-lines of strikers desperate for a living wage, will not go unnoticed. As for resilience, many state school pupils “bounce back” every day, whether the setbacks be family orientated, or to do with their school aspirations being affected by changes to examinations, excellent results being criticised by politicians, essential grants being removed, courses dropped through lack of funding, or universities preferring rich, privately educated applicants to them.
    Be prepared to take strong action; when for instance, schools in an academy chain are deemed failing, they should be returned to local authority control; when universities mis-use funding by over-paying vice-chancellors, they need regulation! When an academy, as one in Nottingham recently, states it does not recognise trade unions, return it to its local authority. Ensure the financial accounts of all academies are made public, to attempt to assure the taxpayers that no school under your watch is being run for profit!
    It`s all pretty obvious stuff, really, if your commitment is to support state schools and all who work in them.
    Posted by Bernie Evans

  2. James Martin says:

    A very moderate, but potentially very useful, legislative aim would be to allow academies to return to LA control if their governors/boards want it or if they (or the larger chains) have proved incapable of running schools properly (in which case the secretary of state could force it). Currently academies are a one way street, once a school leaves LA control legally there is no way back – and if things go wrong they are likely to be gobbled up by ever larger and more powerful chains (which is the intention of course).

    By allowing a voluntary/failing return this would not upset those academies who want to remain as academies (although personally I’d return them all to LA control whether they liked it or not) hence the ‘moderate’ part of the policy, but it would be a potentially huge boost when it comes to a gradual return to sense and democratic oversight.

    Of course Hunt hasn’t even suggested this simple moderate change, as he is either simple himself or is signed up to the marketisation guff of Gove (or a combination of the two of course).

    But when was the last time we had anyone who knew what they were doing in that post? Twigg was an utter waste of ineffectual space that never laid a glove on Gove in all that time he was there. Burnham showed signs of being good, but left after a year for Health. And before that? A list of total eejits (Blunket!) with the sole exception of Estelle Morris who as a former teacher at least knew what she was on about but who didn’t appear to want the pressure or responsibility.

    1. David Pavett says:

      An important issue is that under present legal arrangements many of the things that the politicians of all parties are saying they want from schools cannot be delivered. On the other and it is not right to say that “legally there is no way” back to LA status. This whole issue has been studied in meticulous detail by the lawyer David Wolfe who has an excellent website on the whole range of legal issues associated with academies. In particular he has written a detailed article about academies and their legal issues. It is from the Law Journal and is not an easy read but it is well worth the effort for anyone wanting to debate how we get out of the mess we are now in.

      1. James Martin says:

        I disagree David, and in fact the Anti-Academies Alliance along with the 6 main TUC affiliated education unions (and year own legal people) that are part of it have looked at this issue closely and the accepted view is that as the law currently stands (under the 2010 Academies Act) there is indeed a one-way street in terms of academy conversion and no legal way back, only a transfer to a new sponsor/chain/multi-academy trust if things start to go wrong, And given the numbers of academies that are now in special measures and have been for some time this is very relevant, because the only thing an Education Secretary can do under current legislation is to either put in a new Interim Executive Board (for a stand alone school) or move the school to a different sponsor/chain (which has happened in a number of cases).

        1. David Pavett says:

          Perhaps we are talking at cross purposes. Probably I was not clear enough. When I said that there is a “legal” way back I did not mean that the law as it stands gives a way back, clearly it doesn’t. I meant that there would be quite simple ways of changing the law to make the way back possible. This is what David Wolfe explains. He argues that the legislation introduced by this government on SEN provision overrides the academies funding agreements and shows a way forward. At the end of his paper referenced above he outlines three different approaches to making changing the law. The point in all this, about which I am sure we agree, is that if Labour was serious about a one-nation education system it would be discussing these different legal routes to bringing all state funded schools under democratic control.

          1. James Martin says:

            Yes, which brings things back to my original point, that it would be very easy for Hunt to propose to amend the legislation by allowing a return to LA control, but he has failed to do so.

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