Tristram Hunt's focus on social mobility shows Labour's direction on education. Photo: Getty
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Is the Labour party finally beginning to engage on education?

After years of hardly trying to counter the coalition’s regressive education reforms, Labour finally seems to have begun to make a move.

At the start of this week Tristram Hunt gave a speech saying that the next Labour government would stop the reforms to A-levels introduced under Michael Gove and that the Conservatives were "turning the clock back on social mobility" with their policies. This intervention marks the first time that Labour has begun to counter the government’s reforms on a more substantive and ideological level since the start of the coalition.

The government’s reforms which scrapped AS-levels were often unpopular because, according University admissions staff, they unfairly affected students at comprehensive schools. Comprehensive students made the fastest progress between GCSE and AS-level, therefore improving their prospects when applying to University. In essence, the reforms had an adverse effect upon access to higher education by penalising comprehensive students.

It’s been a long period of quiet from Labour on education, both from Stephen Twigg and Tristram Hunt, but now that Michael Gove has been replaced with Nicky Morgan, it seems that tide is beginning to turn. Previously, Hunt has attacked the government on teaching standards and qualifications, something which he reiterated on Monday. Hunt’s attack on the impact of reforms upon social mobility however represents something more substantial; he is pinning his colours to the mast and saying that social mobility will the core of One Nation Labour’s educational ideology.

Of all the different policy fields covered by the One Nation banner, education has been the slowest to evolve and to form a coherent narrative. Where is the equivalent of Andy Burnham’s "whole-person care"? Maybe the idea of "whole-person education" or even "whole-life education" could be the election slogan for a set of education policies that promote the joint ideas of social mobility and access to education. Whatever they decide on, it is clear that education policy has not been a priority for the party.

Instead of creating a comprehensive alternative to the coalition’s dogma of educational reform, Labour has previously focused mostly on technical points and in so doing created a consensus in Westminster around education by virtue of barely even engaging with the debate. By now taking on the reforms on an ideological level, Labour is starting to flesh out its philosophical backbone on education.

This week’s speech of course only represented the beginnings of something happening with Labour’s education policy; it was not by any means a major policy overhaul. There is still lots of work to be done and questions to be answered; what are they going to do with vocational education? And how will they make it stick? How does education fit into the overall party message? What we saw this week was indication of what will underpin Labour’s education policy for next year.

In an interview today for Buzzfeed, Tristram Hunt specifically said that, "the party has always viewed education as a vehicle for social mobility". The Labour party was the party that introduced the Open University, an institution specifically designed to widen access to education, to give the opportunity of social mobility to more people. It was also the party that introduced comprehensive education, which aimed to helped those left behind by the educational elitism. If Tristram Hunt is serious in his belief of social mobility being created through education, he will need to put his money where his mouth is and live up to the legacy of the party with something bigger and bolder than keeping AS-levels. Hopefully this week’s speech has signalled the start of this change in education policy and is not just a one-off.

Dan Holden is deputy editor of Shifting Grounds

Photo: Getty
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On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zeffman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s). Most people won't make a judgement based on reading up the minutinae of European treaties, but on a "sniff test" of which side they think is more trustworthy. It's not a fight about the facts - it's a fight about who is more trusted by the public: David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling or Priti Patel? As one minister said to me: "I like Priti, but the idea that she can go against the PM as far as voters are concerned is ridiculous. Most people haven't heard of her." 

Leave finds itself in a position uncomfortably like that of Labour in the run-up to the election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.