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
Getty Images.
Show Hide image

How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.