Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Leader: Why is Labour silent on education's Berlin Wall?

Unlike the education secretary, Tristram Hunt has nothing to say on the dominance of the private schools.

As a former journalist, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has an instinct for a good headline. In a bold speech on 3 February at the London Academy of Excellence he accused the Labour Party of “reinforcing”, through its continuous defence of the status quo, “the Berlin Wall between state and private” education.

Mr Gove said he wanted to make state schools so good that they would be indistinguishable from private schools. It is a utopian aspiration but at least he is prepared to discuss what Anthony Seldon, the headmaster of Wellington College, describes as the “entrenched position of private schools”.

“Education’s Berlin Wall” was the headline we gave last week to the wide-ranging essay by David Kynaston and George Kynaston exploring the dominance of the private school minority in public life. Only 7 per cent of the population is educated at private, fee-paying institutions but their alumni dominate the cabinet, the press, the BBC, the law, medicine and, increasingly, the arts and creative industries. At present, as much as 50 per cent of Oxford and Cambridge graduates attended private schools; many of those from state schools who make it to Oxbridge went to selective grammars, of which 164 still remain in England.

We know, too, that there is a correlation between poverty and educational failure and that the poorest in society are locked in to a cycle of underachievement and dependency.

In a speech in 2012 Mr Gove said: “More than almost any [other] developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress. In England, more than in any comparable country, those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege. For those of us who believe in social justice this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible.”

Just before Christmas, the former prime minister John Major said it was “truly shocking” the way that “the upper echelons of power … are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class”. It is indeed shocking – and humiliating.

Yet what does the Labour Party have to say about this Berlin Wall in education? What is it prepared to do to breach it? Why, as the Kynastons suggested in a New Statesman podcast last week, is it politicians of the right who are prepared to speak out on this issue while Labour, with the admirable exception of Andrew Adonis (who writes on page 28), remains silent?

We invited Tristram Hunt, the recently appointed shadow education secretary, to reply to or comment on the Kynastons’ essay. He declined. Could it be that Mr Hunt, the son of a peer who was educated at an exclusive private school in London, feels compromised by his own background and education? If so, this is a dismal state of affairs and underlines the timidity and incoherence of Labour’s education policy.

In response to the Gove speech in London, Mr Hunt issued a short statement reaffirming Labour’s support for having “trained teachers” in the classroom, as if credentialism were all that mattered. But what of the dominance of the private schools? What of the stranglehold that better-off families have over top state schools? The popularity of free schools among many parents? The educational failures of the most disadvantaged in society? The need to make the private schools justify their charitable status by partnering with or sponsoring state academies and opening up to the poorest? Difficult territory. Let us not go there.

Mr Gove’s opponents – especially the teaching unions – wish to portray him as a zealot. At times, he is wilfully partisan and needlessly provocative – such as when, absurdly, he described the educational establishment as the “Blob”. He can be dogmatic, even smug. And he has alienated far too many teachers with his relentless quest for innovation.

Yet one is in no doubt what he stands for and what he wants. He can be wrong-headed but he has the courage of his convictions. Could one say the same of the shadow education secretary? 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

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It's not WhatsApp that was at fault in the Westminster attacks. It's our prisons

Britain's criminal justice system neither deterred nor rehabilitated Khalid Masood, and may even have facilitated his radicalisation. 

The dust has settled, the evidence has been collected and the government has decided who is to blame for the attack on Westminster. That’s right, its WhatsApp and their end-to-end encryption of messages. Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, wants tech companies to install a backdoor into messages like these that the government can then access.

There are a couple of problems here, not least that Adrian Russell aka Khalid Masood was known to the security services but considered to be low-risk. Even if the government had had the ability to gain entry to his WhatsApp, they wouldn’t have used it. Then there’s the fact that end-to-end encryption doesn’t just protect criminals and terrorists – it protects users from criminals and terrorists. Any backdoor will be vulnerable to attack, not only from our own government and foreign powers, but by non-state actors including fraudsters, and other terrorists.

(I’m parking, also, the question of whether these are powers that should be handed to any government in perpetuity, particularly one in a country like Britain’s, where near-unchecked power is handed to the executive as long as it has a parliamentary majority.)

But the biggest problem is that there is an obvious area where government policy failed in the case of Masood: Britain’s prisons system.

Masood acted alone though it’s not yet clear if he was merely inspired by international jihadism – that is, he read news reports, watched their videos on social media and came up with the plan himself – or he was “enabled” – that is, he sought out and received help on how to plan his attack from the self-styled Islamic State.

But what we know for certain is that he was, as is a recurring feature of the “radicalisation journey”, in possession of a string of minor convictions from 1982 to 2002 and that he served jail time. As the point of having prisons is surely to deter both would-be offenders and rehabilitate its current occupants so they don’t offend again, Masood’s act of terror is an open-and-shut case of failure in the prison system. Not only he did prison fail to prevent him committing further crimes, he went on to commit one very major crime.  That he appears to have been radicalised in prison only compounds the failure.

The sad thing is that not so very long ago a Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice was thinking seriously about prison and re-offending. While there was room to critique some of Michael Gove’s solutions to that problem, they were all a hell of a lot better than “let’s ban WhatsApp”. 

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