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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle