A Labour U-turn on free schools? It's not that simple

Stephen Twigg's speech was neither a capitulation to Gove’s agenda nor a ferocious reaction against it.

For a policy intervention to count as a U-turn, two conditions must be met. First, a party needs to have been moving clearly in one direction. Second, after the manoeuvre, it needs to be advancing in the opposite direction. Labour’s announcement today on education policy matches neither requirement.

The opposition has been painfully ambivalent about coalition school reforms, which have their genesis in the Blair-era policy. Labour has been unsure whether or how to salvage some of its intellectual property from Michael Gove’s zealous pursuit of academies and free schools.

Today, Stephen Twigg has tried to bring some clarity to Labour’s position. It isn’t easy. The shadow education secretary has both repudiated and acquiesced to coalition policy. The acquiescence is in accepting that the frenetic advance of academies and the creation of free schools under the current government would not be reversed. A Labour government would, however, apply brakes to Gove’s speeding juggernaut.

Twigg says:

Labour will not continue with Michael Gove’s Free Schools policy. Existing free schools and those in the pipeline will continue. But in future we need a better framework for creating new schools …

There will be no bias for or against a school type- so new academies, new maintained schools, new trust schools - all options. A school system based on evidence not dogma.

But then again, he also says:

Labour strongly believes parents have an important role to play in calling for and setting up new local schools. … Labour started the academies programme to bring outside energy and expertise into the schools system, we want to extend that to parents.

That sounds like a dilute version of existing policy.

The real element of repudiation is subtle but intellectually important. Twigg argues that new academies or free schools should not be set up in areas where there are already sufficient school places. Adding such excess capacity, Labour argues, is wasteful (because limited resources should go to areas where there is insufficient supply and classrooms are overcrowded) and divisive (because parents, it is feared, use free schools to segregate their children from neighbours whom they deem undesirable).

According to Twigg, Labour would change the emphasis in the academies policy from expansion of volume – rejecting Gove's habit of measuring success by the sheer number of schools breaking free from local authority control – to collaboration between schools and enforcing fair admissions policies.

But for Gove, excess supply of school places in some areas is not some accidental by-product of the system, it is the logical extension of the market mechanism that is meant to improve standards. New schools are supposed to arrive on the doorstep of established ones and compete for the attention of parents. The process that Labour sees as chaotic and divisive is, in Conservative terms, the positive force of creative disruption that will unleash innovation and, through increased competition, drive up standards.

This is now the essential division between Labour and Conservatives on education policy. Academies and free schools will be part of the landscape regardless of who wins the next election. But under a Tory education secretary the anticipated mechanism for improving performance in weak schools will by market forces. Education providers, including eventually profit-making private-sector companies, will compete for the custom of parents hoping to send their children to whichever institution appears to offer the best prospects.

And under a Labour education secretary, the expected mechanism for improving performance in weak schools will be intervention, directed by government, in the form of partnership with other, more successful schools. Crudely speaking, the Conservatives like free school and academies because they are supposed to give complacent local authority schools a kick up the backside, while Labour can live with free schools and academies if they give local authority schools a helping hand.

One result of today's announcement is that Labour’s education policy now officially lacks ideological purity. It is neither a capitulation to Gove’s agenda nor a ferocious reaction against it. Twigg’s soggy middle-way position will disappoint dogmatists on both sides of the debate, which is probably a sign that he is standing in about the right place. 

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage