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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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