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Tristram and Schools – What can we expect in government?

Tristram things can only get betterThe People’s Parliament organised by John McDonnell MP recently held a meeting on education under the title Re-thinking schooling: class & education. The panel of speakers included Christine Blower, the General Secretary of the NUT and Diane Reay, a Cambridge university sociologist specialising in questions of class. The contributions were excellent and were followed by an hour long discussion with questions and points coming from the audience. You can find a report of the meeting and audio files of the main contributions on the website of the Socialist Educational Association (SEA).

Frustration with Labour’s policies on education and a lack confidence in Tristram Hunt were both evident in the contributions of virtually everyone (panel and audience) who spoke about them. It was mentioned more than once that the only party with educational policies anywhere near matching what most campaigners for inclusive and comprehensive state education want is the Green Party. Some members of the audience even said that they had left the Labour Party because of its abandonment of progressive educational ideas and policies along with its embrace of neo-liberal marketising concepts.

Christine Blower responded to these doubts by saying that it is no good just throwing one’s hands up in despair and withdrawing from activity. The important thing in this pre-election period is to get out and convince as many people as possible of the well-thought out policies that already exist as exemplified for example by the NUT Education Manifesto for 2015. And she is, of course, right about this. On the other hand, the doubts won’t go away so activism alone cannot be a complete answer.

If activism is based on illusions it will end in despair at best and even to an embrace of reactionary ideas at worst. Better to be both active and realistic. But what does this mean in the case of education?

I think that it means recognising frankly that Labour is not in a good place and doesn’t have leadership in its education team that shows any sign of taking it to a good place. One can even argue that, more broadly, Labour doesn’t have the social and economic policies that would have to form a necessary backdrop to the education reform needed to end the fragmentation of our school system. For example Labour has no clear targets, let alone the means to achieve them, for a significant reduction in social inequality (unless you believe that a 50p tax and a mansion tax, welcome though those measures may be, will do the trick). Schools are embedded in society and reflect its mores.

In my view, a careful reading of Labour’s educational policy document emerging from Annual Conference along with recent statements by Tristram Hunt (one hears little from the rest of the education team) gives no room for hoping that Labour will end the fragmentation brought about by Gove’s reforms. It would moderate that fragmentation to some extent by, we are told, bringing all state-funded schools under the control of a government approved, but locally-appointed officer who would be statutorily independent of the local authority. But instead of bringing schools back into the framework of local democracy Labour promises to give all schools the freedoms of academies (e.g. to set their own school days and holidays) and to put them under the control of a one-person quango. It is alarming that Labour has even rejected the proposal to end selective examinations at eleven.

If there is no chance of a robust progressive educational stance from Labour, then is there any point in activism? I think that there is. First, even if Labour’s policies are overwhelmingly tinkering with the Gove system it remains true that (a) its policies have not yet taken a clear form and (b) some of the progressive pressures which emerged at its National Policy Forum have managed to surface, even if in a half-hearted and unclear way in its final Conference-approved document.

Thus even though the call to abolish the 11+ exam was rejected the document contains the assertion that selective examinations at 11 are harmful to all children. So Labour thinks that they harm children but is not prepared to get rid of them! That is a pinch-point at which pressure should be exerted and maximum embarrassment produced with a view to pushing policy to a more coherent position.  I think that it is therefore worthwhile to tease out all of the points in Labour’s policy document that would need to be emphasised if we are to get beyond tinkering. This is all the more important since, even though, the Conference document will be the basis for the 2015 election manifesto it is by no means clear what will be included and what will not. I have made some suggestions here.

Despite the problems mentioned there are points where the Conference document contains surprisingly clear statements of position. Thus it gives clear support to national negotiations for salaries and conditions of service for both teaching and non-teaching staff. This is, of course, inconsistent with Tristram Hunt’s personal support for the discredited notion of performance-related pay so it will be interesting to see what goes into the manifesto.

And then on top of all that there is a lot of truly excellent educational material around framed for the 2015 election. A collection of these documents can be found on the SEA website. The more people who read and understand these documents the stronger will be the pressure on individual candidates in the next election. And even if it is virtually certain that this will not produce the dramatic shift required in Labour’s education policies it will keep up the pressure and keep the arguments alive while developing new analyses and new ideas. It’s a medium to long-term game and of course none of us know what will happen in the next election and many feel that it may be the beginning of the end of the old two-party show. If so, then it will be more important than ever that those campaigning for better education for all have as many policies in place to exert pressure and influence thinking on whatever new political developments may take place.


  1. Robert says:

    Sadly after New labour the Unions and the public did not want New labour, so we looked around for change and up pops this chap with a gormless looking, harmless as hell, we all thought Edward Miliband he’s not his brother better pick him.

    Ed is one of those people who if he came up with a brilliant idea you would think where has he stolen that one from.

    I was told that labour are now looking at Germany to get a view on education my first thought was oh god no not 1930’s Germany, seems not they are looking at how modern Germany has moved forward with education and since we in the UK are lacking in people in politics to have views or seeing anything these days they are looking at colleges and further education being totally free including University. How sad that labour has to look at a right wing Germany to get the motivation to state we will have free education here, or maybe not with Miliband.

  2. Bernie Evans says:

    Wrote this recently
    An article by Solomon Hughes in the Morning Star recently concentrated on the influence of the Blairite Progress group on Labour`s policies, with mentions of Tristram Hunt featuring strongly. Speaking at their rally, Hunt declared himself “delighted to be with Progress”, and although his “jokes” may not have gone down well, his policies for education certainly will have.
    That means, of course, that under a Labour government, teachers cannot expect very much in the way of improvement. Whilst understanding, to some extent, that his appointment had much to do with meeting the Gove challenge at the despatch box, it is evident that now he must be moved on. He clearly was taken in by all of Gove`s nonsense about assessment changes being necessary because results were so good; he still fails to acknowledge that teaching now is better than ever, and teachers must be told to work less, not criticised for poor discipline, or whatever. Ofsted, and heads who fear the inspection regime, have managed to force sixty hours of work a week out of teachers, a situation which inevitably will lead to recruitment problems, and future standards. Has Hunt attacked this ludicrous state of affairs? Of course not! His own idiotic suggestions for re-licensing and a teachers` oath are testimony to the fact that Labour would do well to replace him before the election with someone with knowledge and experience of the state sector, who can empathise with the teaching profession. Labour cannot pretend the problems with pay and pensions do not exist, or that the decrease in social mobility is not part of the education remit. How long will the so-called “top” universities be allowed to take the majority of their students from private schools?
    More here

    With Progress behind him, Hunt may think he has bigger fish to fry; Labour needs someone in the post who realises nothing is more important than the education of our children, and that equality of opportunity is still a principle worth defending!

  3. John Reid says:

    As a Ed supporter I accept the unions got Him. The Job,and the unions are part of theLabour movement, not all unions were anti New Labour, New labour did take Union money, but I believe as a Un ion member we accepted as the money we gave was a lot smaller than before , our influence was smaller too, the reason I backed end was,not only was new Labour over, Davi ddidn’t understand how unpopular we were,

    Although I occasionally read progress online, I think everyne over estimates it influence these days,as for Tristan hunt, on Goves resignation,as both the Libdems and Rod Liddle pointed out, a lot of what Gove was trying to achieve wasnt that different to charles Clarke , Estelle Morris ,Alan Milbrun or ruth kelly

    1. Robert says:

      John your as right wing as they come and your ba Blair-rite so what this nonsense are you hoping Miliband is will change I doubt it. And your full blown Blair -rite.

  4. Barry Ewart says:

    It could be argued the rich and powerful in advanced capitalist liberal democracies don’t want education systems that produce a mass of critical thinkers but perhaps need education systems that produce a wheat and a chaff. The wheat to be the capitalist managers and leaders and the chaff to do the less desirable and less well paid work but whose labour creates the wealth and make societies work. So we have a competitive education system based on exams (elaborate memory tests) instead of a focus on in course assessment which offers a much fuller picture of human beings.

    It could be argued a minority are made to feel special (sometimes as young as 11) and a majority are made to feel failures, somehow ‘less intelligent’ which can stay with some people all of their lives. Yet anyone of us can come up with innovative ideas i.e. to save the planet or to end austerity etc. but some may lack the confidence to value their ideas (mine are publicly owned solar panel farms in the World’s deserts, free public transport, Windfall Taxes on the top 200 corporations – £1b each, a 5% EC Financial Transaction Tax, more democratic public ownership by country with staff electing qualified boards and communities having a say and public utilities paying a community dividend which can be taken to offset against bills and address fuel poverty plus long term productive investment to meet global need).

    But fundamentally we need to redistribute wealth and eliminate poverty – how do you focus on lessons if you are hungry, feel scruffy, live in a poor environmentvwhen all you can think about is your parents arguing over money, and it’s PE next and you have holes in your socks and its time for your weekly public humiliation? You may even have mental health difficulties and all these lessons MEAN NOTHING TO YOUR LIFE NOW! I

    t would perhaps help to have democratic schools accountable to the local communities who elect the governors. We also need free HE with critical degrees and critical apprenticeships and make big business pay plus bring back the EMA and promote lifelong learning. With the poor we need more adult educators who empower people by following the approach advocated by Paulo Freire. These ideas were used in literacy in the UK in he 60’s and adults learnt to read and write to communicate better with their children, in Latin America they learn’t to read and write to better communicate with their children but they also learned where the power was in society.

    We need to campaign with our sister democratic socialist parties in every country to try to build a World of critical thinkers.. It’s amazing in my 40 years of community work how many working people I have met who thought they were ‘thick’ then came up with the most wonderful ideas, a source globally as democratic socialists, in a bottom up approach, we need to tap. We need to become facilitators for change.

    1. David Pavett says:

      I agree with much that you say. There is certainly a mystique around what is involved in becoming a creative contributor to whatever one choses to become involved in. As you say, everyone has it within them to be creative if given the chance.

      However, we don’t need a conspiracy theory to understand the failings of education in a class-divided society. Those who accept the need for wide social inequality invariably justify this with the view, no doubt sincerely held, that this is a result of the unequal distribution of ‘natural talent’. Their approach to education follows on as part of the same view.

      The situation is often more complex than a simple clash of class interest (which undoubtedly exists). Thus the CBI is criticising our ‘exam factory’ approach to schooling and wants far geeater emphasis on young people being confident enough to think for themselves.

      Yes, schools should be brought back within the framework of local democracy. The whole exam system needs to be changed. Ofsted should be closed down and there should be a sustained and well-funded national debate about the aims of education.

      I like the idea of an international debate between socialist parties on developing critical thinking but wouldn’t it be a good start to try a bit of this first in Labour Party policy making and debate?

      I’ll pass on Paulo Friere whose ideas, although clearly well intentioned, always seemed to me to be half-baked and a long way from genuinely critical reflection. He even thought that the Chinese cultural revolution was an exercise in overcoming the culture of domination. I’d like to keep any thoughts about developing independent thinkers well away from that sort of nonsense.

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