So Labour failed on education, did it? Not so, says Mehdi Hasan

As usual, the conventional wisdom is wrong. So says the FT.

Our education system isn't perfect. Far from it. But, in recent years, it has become fashionable to deride the performance of the schools and teachers in this country; in opposition, the Tories, aided by their cheerleaders in the right-wing media, spouted context-free statistics about the numbers of "functionally illiterate" children and talked down the educational achievements of primary and secondary school pupils. Nowadays, the conventional wisdom is that Labour failed on education, despite Tony Blair's famous pledge ("Education, education, education").

The conventional wisdom, as is so often the case, is wrong. In today's Financial Times, Chris Cook reports:

Poorer children closed the educational achievement gap on children from wealthier backgrounds during Labour's last term of office, according to a comprehensive Financial Times analysis of exam results achieved by three million 16-year-olds over five years.

When looking at a basket of core GCSE qualifications -- sciences, modern languages, maths, English, history and geography -- the FT found a sustained improvement in the results achieved by children from the poorest neighbourhoods. Between 2006 and 2010, after stripping out the effects of grade inflation, the bottom of the distribution shifted upwards: the gap closed by one-sixth of a grade in every one of these GCSE subjects. There was no significant change in the number of these subjects sat by these pupils.

The pink paper quotes Simon Burgess, professor of economics at the University of Bristol and director of the Centre for Market and Public Organisation, as saying:

We may have here the first evidence of a turning of the tide.

According to Burgess, the results suggest that

. . . declining social mobility is not an immutable force, but can be changed. Indeed, it seems that it was changed by the education policies of the previous government.

Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, has said his mission in life is to improve social mobility. Perhaps, then, he could learn some lessons from those "backroom boys", Miliband and Balls, who he is so keen to deride and denounce.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.