A new comprehensive vision for education

The three parties are united behind a failed education consensus. We need a new system that promotes cooperation, not competition.

Coalitions don’t just have to be about government – they can be about ideas too. What is perplexing about British politics is that you find groups in each of the main parties saying pretty much the same thing. Nowhere is this more true than education. A coalition, predating the general election of 2010, dominates British education. No one voted for it or sanctioned it, and I suspect few want it. It is a coalition born of the 1980s and today it is represented by Michael Gove, Andrew Adonis and David Laws. It needs to be understood and trumped by a more radical, progressive and hopeful education coalition.

The puzzle of this cross-party coalition of ideology finds clarity in its evidential failure. The power of the coalition is that it served the dominant political economy of neo-liberalism. People would be shaped on a learn-to-earn consumer treadmill, thus enabling them to compete and shop in a global economy. Aspiration would be narrowly defined and individually attained. If you could climb the ladder and if you wanted to climb it badly enough, then the world was yours. Bad luck was just another way of saying you weren’t trying hard enough. But this meritocratic promise is fast breaking down. Today, even if you learn hard, work harder and play by the rules there is no guarantee of success. Instead, a generation is being laid to waste because, as we now all know, "there is a flaw in the model". The desire industry speeds up the turning of wants into needs – but this flawed economy is destroying the ability to pay. Given this rupture between the neo-liberal promise and the lived reality of millions of children and their parents – what now is the purpose of education? Indeed, why go to school?

The answer starts with Einstein who warned us "we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them". Next comes the recognition that we cannot view education in isolation to the economic, social and political culture in which the system fits. As such, education plays an almost unique role, not just a big part of the means by which society reproduces itself, but a platform from which society can actually transform itself. Thus, we have to understand education as a paradoxical entity, as both in-and-against the still dominant discourse of free market ideology. But given the objective failure of neo-liberalism and, therefore, of the educational consensus that flowed to it and from it, the onus must now be to come up with alternative – a new consensus for education in a good society.  

That of course will not be easy, although it is reassuring to remember that the majority always started out as a minority and that only from small acorns do great oaks grow. And let’s build on that thought by briefly stating what we don’t think education should be about and, therefore, how it must not be run. If it’s not about the production of addicted consumers, then the basis of educational production should not be consumerised or marketised. Likewise, if we think that everyone who has a stake in the education system should also have a voice in the creation of the education system then we can kick largely into touch the old bureaucratic model of the mid decades of the last century. As Simon Jenkins has written recently, "Britain’s economy is in a mess not for a lack of maths but for a lack of ethics and common sense. Being top of the world in science did not save the Soviet Union from collapse … the academic terrorism of tests and league tables has made Gradgrinds rote-learning seem almost liberal".  While heads, teachers and inspectors tick the boxes of the standards regime there is a growing hole in the heart of our education system – a hole in which empathy, compassion, responsibility, creativity and the enduring and genuine identity formation of the young people of our country is squeezed out.

Once we have dispensed with the market and the target, or to put it another way, the Soviet Union and G4S, as the models for educational production where does that leave us? Well that depends on what we think education is for. The work and thinking of the Compass Education Group has resulted in a rather simple, and dare I say, rather beautiful rationale for the billions we pump into education, and it is this: our education system is there to help us learn to live and collaborate together. It is the prime collective means by which we are socialised. And as such, its focus is relational, emotional and human. And if, as they should be, means and ends are to be united, then the way our education system functions should be relational, emotional and human. This "learning to live together" is the most precious gift we can bestow on young people. The art of life is to know how to live it with others. If, at the most basic, our core belief is that we should treat others as we would have them treat us, then our schooling system must, above all, teach us exactly that.  

Of course, we have to burden this fragile but wonderful structure with more capability and qualifications needs but if the essence is to produce citizens, rather than consumers, or their flip side, worker ants, then what is the model of a new educational consensus?  We cannot go on as we are, neither can we go back to some 1960s comprehensive nirvana. Instead, we are going to have to explore a new comprehensive vision – it will be challenging and difficult.

The focus for this new comprehensive vision will not be the solitary school, but the local area. The challenge of the future is how schools and local institutions collaborate to ensure everyone learns about their life in common and that through a cooperative local system all maximise their potential and their capabilities. The building block will be the formation of local stakeholders Educational Boards that could be indirectly or directly elected. They must include parents in the recognition that we cannot outsource the socialization of our children to either the market or the bureaucracy.  If we do then our children will suffer. Parents, alongside professionals, local politicians, the community, business and other interests, have to play a role in shaping and determining local collaboration, not least the localisation of inspection and standards. And instead of league tables that can be gamed, local democratic accountability would provide a much more effective spur for continuous improvement and innovation.

Such a democratic educationalism cannot just be argued for on intrinsic reasons alone but the instrumental case too - we get better outcomes through democratic participation and engagement than we do from the machine or the market. Trusting people is better than either imposing decisions on them or forcing them to compete. Their buy-in and the co-production of services between users and workers locks in organic initiative and enterprise. These ideas are going with the flow of economic development, even in a period of neo-liberalism – more networked, more localised and more innovation based.  

Seen in the global context of a growing relevance of relational and democratic ideas, all of a sudden it becomes our school and our area and our commitment to both improves outputs in ways competition and instruction never can.  Democracy is not easy or quick, but is the only way to come up with solutions that are embedded and enduring. And such a move would break the strange-hold of Whitehall – a blow not just to the control freaks, but also the neo-liberals. The free market always requires a strong state to usher in privatisation.

Of course, central government will have a role, not least in funding. And professionalism must be recognised, encouraged, respected and rewarded. As Melissa Benn wrote recently, "for Adonis and Gove all that stands in the way of a child on free schools meals and King's College Cambridge is a militant, clock watching member of the NUT". A good education cannot be built with teachers as the enemy but, rather, along with parents and other stakeholders, as one of the prime forces to improve performance.

This new comprehensive vision will have to be supported by more specific educational strategies – for example, it should be underpinned by a common curriculum and a unified qualifications framework. This means not a divide and conquer Bacc of academic and technical varieties, but a unified Bacc that dusts down the Tomlinson report, which recommended the end of the academic divide and radically updates it. Finally, further and higher education need to be merged around a new educational entitlement that ends any notion of up-front fees and charges. Such a comprehensive and unified structure can be the only basis of a truly one nation politics. Indeed, I think we say that one nation starts in the classroom.

Conversely, government should do nothing to support division and competition within the education system, anything that tears people apart,  rather that drives them together. Private schools should no longer receive tax breaks. Andrew Adonis’s aspiration for private schools to back academies and free schools to level up opportunities and standards is at best a naïve category error which fails to recognise the reason why parents pay thousands in fees each year – to buy an advantage over the state system. As charitable status must go, so the 11-plus must be phased out.

A new comprehensive vision and new education coalition will not emerge solely from Labour because it paved the way for much of the Gove agenda. What we are witnessing is its logical conclusion. Instead, the braver elements of the Labour Party must make common cause with social liberals, parents, localists, businesses, vocationalists, the teaching unions and other professional groups to develop, flesh out and popularise this new vision. We can learn from the best practice in Canada and Finland, but we must build a distinctly English model of this new vision. Time is of the essence.

The goal of our education system cannot be to produce more hedge fund managers that carve up the country in their interest, divide the few from the many and then wreck everything we hold dear. The failure of that economic system means the end of the education system that flowed from it. It is time for something new and something better.  

The Compass Education Group's conference to discuss and debate "a new comprehensive vision" is on 8 December at the TUC in London. Speakers include Jon Cruddas MP, who is chairing Labour’s Policy Review and Mary Bousted from the ATL

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers

Pupils wait for school buses in the playground. Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.