Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.