Education – Labour’s next Clause 4?

The left needs a new education strategy.

In the last week we have heard complaints from not one but two cabinet ministers about the insidious and unfair advantages that the privately educated enjoy in our society. As a state school boy myself, I richly enjoyed the irony of this lecture coming from two privately educated members of a Cabinet whose membership criteria appears, with the very odd exception, to comprise not only being a white male but also significant personal wealth and an education at one of our most prestigious public schools. And yet what they said will have struck a chord with many. The grossly disproportionate number of those at our top universities and in the senior ranks of politics, industry, finance, the law and media who were educated not just independently but at one of only a handful of such schools, belies our pretensions to live in a meritocracy.

What is even more depressing is that the breaking of the mould by the post war grammar school generation was, in retrospect, no more than a temporary blip in the status quo. Successive governments have recognised the criticality of education to equality of opportunity but have done little to address the problem. Parents justifiably feel that the state has abrogated one of its fundamental responsibilities: to give every child a fair chance to realise his full potential regardless of class or wealth. A small minority simply opt out and go private. A sizeable majority tell the pollsters that they would do the same if they could afford it. Some spend the extra tens, or hundreds, of thousands needed to buy a house in the right catchment area. A few just lie about where they live. Others feign religious devotion and the Toby Youngs of the world start their own school and get the rest of us to pay for it. Meanwhile every place at the remaining grammar schools is oversubscribed tenfold and desperate parents are funding an industry of private tutors. This pantomime is a damning indictment of our governance.

Few issues evoke such a visceral response as education. Why wouldn’t it, when the quality of a child’s schooling will determine the rest of his life? How rich, then, would be the political rewards for the party which seized the agenda and offered a radical restatement of the aims and methods of our educational system. Not just tinkering around the edges with the promise of one micro initiative or another, but a recognition that our educational system is not fit for purpose in the 21st century and the offer of an alternative. Something that will convince the politically critical successors to Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman that their state schools will make their children the best that they can be and take them as far as they can go. A strategy that would outflank the Tories and show that Labour had left behind the tired dogma of the past.

For Labour to take the initiative, and to reap the political reward, will require another Clause 4 moment since they are going to have to confront the shibboleth of selection. I am not proposing a return to the 11+, with its awful segregation of such young children into successes and failures on the basis on a single test and the slow death of hope at a hopelessly underfunded and demoralised secondary modern. But the reality of life is that we are not all the same. We all have different strengths. To pretend otherwise, and to make the same educational offer to each child does none of them any favours. I am the youngest of four brothers. I loved school, did my A-levels and went to Oxford. The other three were thoroughly miserable, left at sixteen feeling that they were failures and took years to find a vocation at which they could each excel. Our experience was hardly unique.

I have my own ideas about the right way to go. I think that a form of selection is inevitable: but one based on a student’s whole career, not just one IQ test, and later, say at 14 rather than at the end of primary school. I wouldn’t be frightened of a choice at that stage between a more technical or practical education of the type that my brothers would have enjoyed and the more academic that suited me, so long as both were equally well funded and there was the ability to transfer between the two, should the original choice prove a mistake. A modern technical college could offer courses and qualifications in subjects like engineering, IT, production management and media as well as the more traditional vocations. Things that the bored teenagers currently staring out of the schoolroom window counting the days until they leave might actually want to learn.

There should also be a properly funded, structured and monitored system of apprenticeships that was comprehensively tied in with the technical colleges to provide a coherent stepping stone between education and employment. And I would want those schools that specialised in the more academic disciplines to do so with unashamed ambition for their students and to instil in them the belief that no university’s or profession’s door was closed to them. Such a system would echo the best elements of the German model that has served their society and economy so well.

Those that advocate the status quo not only overlook its manifest failure but forget the effect of peer pressure on the teenage child. They need to be in an environment where their particular talents are appreciated and respected not only by the teaching staff but by the other children. A place where working hard, at whatever it is, is the cool thing to do. Where nobody can coast, because they are so much more academic than the others, or give up because they don’t have the same aptitude for, and are anyway uninterested in, the subjects they are being taught.

Labour needs to face up to the fact that the pretence that one size fits all is gifting the future to a privileged minority. We are deluding ourselves and, more importantly, our children if we pretend that our entire educational system isn’t already based on the principle of selection. The tragedy is that the current criteria are wealth and class rather than ability and aptitude. If we, as a party, can offer a bold and compelling alternative, then the future is ours. If we cannot, then we should not be in the business of politics.

 John Whitting is a QC and member of the Labour Party.

Photograph: Getty Images
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.