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Lucy Powell needs to explain if Labour aims to end selection or just to limit it

PowellThe Secretary of State for Education (Nicky Morgan) has approved the opening of a so-called ‘annexe’ to the Weald of Kent grammar school. The subterfuge of calling the new school for 450 pupils an annexe despite being 10 miles away in Sevenoaks fools no one. Even the Telegraph puts annex in scare quotes:

The school was granted permission to open as an “annexe” of the already existing Weald of Kent – despite the locations being 10 miles apart.

But then they are not really trying to fool anyone. Everyone knows that it is a new grammar school and that the way is now open for many more. According to the Telegraph:

At least eight more regions of the UK are preparing for applications for extensions from schools in their area.

There are few surprises in this development for anyone who follows educational debate. Campaigning organisations like the Socialist Educational Association, Comprehensive Future and the Campaign for State Education have long called for all state-funded schools to become comprehensive. They have made the obvious point that comprehensive schools running alongside selective schools cannot be genuinely comprehensive. However, these are arguments that have largely fallen on deaf ears within the Labour Party.

Labour’s conflicted stance on comprehensives

The truth is that the Labour Party has always had a conflicted view of education. The often-vaunted Ellen Wilkinson (the Education Minister in the Atlee Government charged with giving reality to the 1944 Act) said it was not her intention “to destroy grammar schools” which she described as “the pioneers of secondary education…”. To emphasis the point Wilkinson’s successor in 1947 (George Tomlinson) said in a 1947 Commons debate: “It is no part of our policy to reduce in any way the status or standing of the grammar school”. The post-war Labour government still accepted the 1944 Act’s division of secondary schools into Grammar, Technical and Secondary Modern.

In his diary entries for 1953 Labour MP Richard Crossman commented that Labour Conferences delegates were “relatively conservative on all educational matters”. He said that most of the delegates either had been to grammar school or had their children attending one. Even though Labour never took a really clear position on comprehensive education the mood of the times was moving against selective education.

With the first Wilson government we still find Labour facing both ways. The Education Minister (Anthony Crosland) was a fervent support of comprehensive education. He was reported by his wife to have said “if it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales. And Northern Ireland”. On the other hand, his Prime Minster (Wilson) had made clear that grammar schools would be abolished “only over his dead body”. The upshot was Crosland’s DES circular 10/65 requesting (no more) local authorities to prepare plans for comprehensive education. The circular was aptly described at the time by the Guardian as an “amiably toothless tiger”. Nevertheless some local authorities responded with enthusiasm.

Despite Labour’s hesitation and prevarications there was, in the 1960s and 70s, a general mood favourable to comprehensive education. It even had a certain amount of cross party support. Parents reacted against a system that could determine their children’s life chances on the basis of a test taken at the age of 11.

But the right had not given up. By the end of the 60s a clear fight-back against comprehensive schools was developed in the form of the much publicised Black Papers (1969-1977) which were a forthright defence of selective education. In the absence of a clear defence of the comprehensive idea from Labour’s leaders these papers became the reference point for debate. In 1976 Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan made a speech on education at Ruskin College in Oxford it which it became clear that Labour’s general position was defensive in the face of the Black Paper onslaught and that its reaction “was characterised by the increasingly detailed interventions of central government into schooling…” (Derek Gillard, History of Education chapter 7).

The 1979 the Education Act – Thatcher’s first – reflected the right-wing backlash but it was still hampered by public opinion. The Act gave back to LEAs the right to select pupils for secondary education at 11. The move backfired, however. The Tories had underestimated the popularity of comprehensive schools, and attempts to reintroduce or extend selection in Berkshire, Wiltshire, Redbridge and Solihull all failed as a result of strong local opposition. (Derek Gillard, History of Education chapter 8)

So the history of the development of comprehensive schools has many twists and turns. Also, there is nothing novel about Labour lack of clarity on education and as the Wilson/Crosland differences illustrate. Neither is there is  nothing new about the Party leader having different views to the Shadow Education Minister. Such conflict disappeared under Ed Miliband’s leadership but only because he had little to say about the subject.

The situation now

Jeremy Corbyn has made his view clear that all state-funded schools should work within the framework of local government. His Shadow Education Minister (Lucy Powell) has made no such commitment preferring to speak of local authority ‘oversight’. Labour, having left grammar schools in place during its thirteen years of government, provided fertile ground for a Conservative reaction based on the alleged need for diversity of provision and individual choice (both values adopted by Labour under Blair, Brown and Miliband). Having met with little Labour resistance to academisation, the Conservatives now feel sure-footed enough to move on to the terrain of overtly selective education. Hence the ‘annexe’ of the Weald of Kent grammar school.

How has Labour reacted?

Labour’s ambivalence over selection was expressed in a statement by Claire Leigh, Labour Parliamentary candidate for Tonbridge & Malling in May 2015 who said that the proposed Sevenoaks annexe “seems unnecessary” because:

The Knole Academy has a highly rated Grammar Stream and has benefited from multi-million pound investments in the past two years. The Knole Academy Grammar Stream offers all the benefits of a diverse and comprehensive learning environment while also catering to different abilities.

In other words there is no need to operate selective education between schools when we can do it within them! Lucy Powell’s reaction (see below) has been to oppose the extension of selection but no more than that.

No change under Miliband

Under Miliband the conservative elements in Labour were given full reign on education (how else could anyone ever have considered making Tristram Hunt Shadow Education Minister?). The most authoritative educational document produced in the Miliband years was the Blunkett Report which clearly stated that Labour had no desire to change the overall “educational landscape” created by Gove. The Academy revolution converting the majority of secondary schools from a part of local authority provision to state-supported independent schools was accepted as an unchangeable background.

It is hardly surprising therefore that Labour was not prepared to take on the issue of grammar schools. This was made abundantly clear at the last National Policy Forum meeting of July 2014 which drew up the final policies for the 2015 manifesto. There were many motions calling for an end to selective education and it was clear that this was a policy favoured by the membership broadly. The Party leadership was determined to head off this opposition to selective education. It did so with just one argument: opposing selection would be a threat to marginal constituencies in Kent. No analysis or facts were produced to support this argument and no campaigns had been run in the constituencies in question. It was just an assumption that comprehensive education was a losing argument. This goes right back to George Tomlinson’s statement of 1950 that “the Labour Party are kidding themselves if they think that the the comprehensive idea has any popular appeal”.

Under Corbyn?

Corbyn’s views, referred to earlier, are well known. He is the first Labour Party leader to be unequivocally in favour of a fully comprehensive system of education. But what of Lucy Powell his Shadow Secretary of State? As stated above her position appears to be indistinguishable from that of the 2015 Labour Manifesto and the July 2014 NPF. She has given no indication of an intention to end selection. On the basis of current policy Labour’s view is that that “selective education harms all children” but also that it is not going to do anything to end it. Lucy Powell talks in ambiguous terms about local authority oversight (as did Stephen Twigg, Tristram Hunt and David Blunkett before her) while falling well short of saying that schools should once again be returned to a local authority framework. Labour’s conflicted attitude to selective versus comprehensive education thus remains in full force.

What to do?

Jeremy Corbyn has an immensely difficult job. He has to lead a Party in which the membership have expressed views leaning in one direction and a Parliamentary Labour Party that leans in the opposite direction. He cannot resolve these problems by some personal magic. In the medium to long term he is totally reliant on members at the base of the Party asserting themselves and making it clear that they want to see all state supported schools run for the benefit of all children and therefore without selective intake. Now it is up to members in branches across the country to put forward motions to this effect for their CLPs.

(Unattributed quotations are all from New Labour and Secondary Education 1994-2010, Clyde Chitty, Palgrave 2013)


  1. David Ellis says:

    What kind of education should the working class be demanding for its kids? Whilst we must of course oppose selection it’s not like what the capitalist state provides now is of much use to those who have already suffered a major disadvantage from birth.

    It’s not even certain that the Corbynistas will even oppose streaming in the end let alone develop a socialist education policy.

  2. Mervyn Hyde says:

    We here in Gloucestershire know only too well what the consequences are for more Grammar schools, the rest become sink schools and teachers are blamed for poor academic results from demotivated students who see themselves as failures, not withstanding the fact when they finish school the jobs are just not there to encourage them. What’s more they know it.

    Having said that some of the comprehensive are still doing well, and as a governor to my local comprehensive I have witnessed excellent teaching and students wanted to impress, which I was, compared to the days I spent at school in my time.

    In Gloucester where I live we have four Grammar schools of which two actually have had a record of underperformance, the other two of course through reputation get the pick of the crop.

    This madness creates bussing of children throughout the county and totally distorts the makeup of the schools, apart from the segregation and in built bigotry that it breeds.

    My belief is that we need to combat the self seeking short sighted attitudes of bigoted parents, by talking in terms of free education and life long learning. We also need to address the need for ever cleverer children when in fact we already have university students leaving to find that there are no jobs for them.

    The reason the Tories are peddling Grammar schools is not to improve education standards but to create more division and we need to ram that point home.

    The country is failing because the private sector has been destroying jobs over the last forty years, it is not being held up for lack of qualified students leaving school.

    Industry and commerce have always lied about it’s own failings; saying it is down to the people within the organisation and stupid people have constantly swallowed it without question. It really is time that we pointed the finger at where the real blame lies.

    Teachers, doctors and nurses are not leaving their respective in professions in droves because the feel inadequate but that they know the government are deliberately mismanaging education, health and every other public service, and the same can be said of New Labour. I know I saw what they did in schools when I was a governor, we called it moving the goalposts.

    Lets see this for what it is, another attack on working people.

  3. Peter Rowlands says:

    Quite right, even though for over 30 years only 7% or so have been affected, but time to abolish it for good. The only drawback is what was highlighted by John Bolt, namely that a recent poll showed that even when it was clear that most pupils would not go to a grammar school, there was still a majority in favour of them.However, this is surely a case of fighting for a position rather than passively accepting a poll.

    1. David Pavett says:

      I agree with what you say Peter but I would like to add that on this issue (as on many others), the answer obtained from polls is very dependent on the question. Thus, in constrast to the results you mention a YouGov survey carried out for Prospect magazine (Prospect Feb., 2013) showed 83% agreeing that “Our local schools generally provide good quality education”. The same poll showed that ony 11% of parents with children at state schools thought that grammar stores should be restored. I have no doubt that a clear national campaign conducted by the Labour Party and led by its leading figures would easily convince the great majority of the wisdom of non-selective education. I am sure that Jeremy Corbyn would be up for it. Would Lucy Powell? Would the Labour left be prepared to move beyond general slogans and actually get to grips with the arguments? The answer to both of these questions is far from clear to me.

  4. James Martin says:

    Isn’t it odd that those calling for a return of Grammar Schools never ever seem to mention Secondary Moderns? It seems quite odd that there are no organisations or campaigners clamouring for Secondary Modern education given you can’t have Grammar schools without them.

    Also, it is ironic that most of the very expensive £30k per annum plus fee paying private schools are actually non-selective comprehensives (with a few exceptions like Eaton), and they seem to do very nicely for their pupils in the main don’t they?

    But that’s the real issue here – proper funding, small class sizes and good accommodation and facilities. Meanwhile in many ways the Grammar debate is a distraction from that, and a distraction from the break up of English state education and the steady loss and erosion of pay and conditions of service for school staff as a result of academisation.

    1. Dave Morgan says:

      Well said James – agree with all your points. I think it’s important that there is a public discussion of what we want our education system to achieve in the round – too often the debate is reduced down, like Grammar schools or not. Your points highlight that each of these narrow issues are part of a bigger picture. If we can’t see what sort of education system we think would best support our kids and society as a whole no wonder attitudes to individual bits of it are so varied and incoherent.

    2. David Pavett says:

      I partly agree with you.

      Yes, secondary moderns are the reverse side of the coin with grammars on the other side.

      But I don’t think that the argument about grammar schools is a distraction. I think is the clearest possible expression of a desire to separate children into the best and the rest at the age of eleven. Labour’s unwillingness to end selective examination for grammar school places is symptomatic of its failure to defend the idea of good local schools for all. That failure is allowing selection to creep back by nany different means e.g. the ever-increasing number of faith schools.

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