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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle