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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit