Ed Miliband. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
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Ed on ed: what would a Miliband government do for education?

The time seems to be right for the Labour leader to lay the foundations of a new, more confident, education policy for his party.

In the end, perhaps, it passed with more of a whimper than a bang. Or rather, the bang was elsewhere – with the question of Tory tax evasion, especially as Ed Miliband chose to use the closing passages of his schools speech late last week to follow up on the Fink question. (Fair enough – more tax equals more public spending.) As for the substance of the Labour leader’s first major statement on schools in a long time, the press focused on class sizes and later, on the comparative spending promises of the big parties. (The person to trust on this is Henry Stewart of the Local Schools Network, here and here.)

But Ed on ed is worth a closer look for other reasons, in particular the subtly changing Labour narrative on schools, an area the new Labour leadership has had real difficulty with during the Gove years. Here, buried beneath the required talk of aspiration and skills for a global economy, were some welcome messages about what a Miliband government might actually do.

Ed has always been very proud, and vocally so, of his comprehensive education and, if memory serves me right, this was one of several speeches he has chosen to give at his old school, Haverstock. (It amused me the way that a couple of reporters gingerly described it as “Haverstock comprehensive” – I mean, can you imagine them writing of Cameron that he gave a speech from “Eton private school?”).

For all Ed’s personal commitment, Labour still can’t claim comprehensive education for itself, as it does the NHS, when, for all their problems, both public services should be natural territory for the party of One Nation. Andy Burnham has said that his biggest regret as shadow education secretary during the early manic Gove period, was not to champion comprehensive education.

But things have shifted in interesting ways over the last four years. Not least, the right of the Tory party has claimed non-selective excellence for its own. Key figures like Jonathan Simons of Policy Exchange or Sam Freedman, former adviser to Gove, may welcome “diverse providers” or even full-blown privatisation, but they passionately believe that far from advancing social mobility, academic selection merely entrenches existing advantage. Gove, Freedman has claimed, “normalised comprehensive education for the Tory party”.

All this helps Ed to lay the foundations of a new, more confident, Labour education policy. So, too, does the visible failure of the Gove bus – I rather like the current NUT hash tag on this theme, #thewheelscomeoff and the destructive stand-off between the teaching profession and Gove that finally did for the erudite, excitable ex-minister.

This leaves some sensible mainstream themes for Labour to pick up and run with, including the need for qualified teachers (duh!), continued professional development, planning for need in terms of new school provision, proper careers advice, and keeping class sizes at 30.  

At the same time, there is a shift away from the axioms of the New Labour years. Yes, Miliband namechecks the original city academies but he is unequivocally critical of the expensive and wasteful academy conversion and free school programmes of the Gove years.

He goes even further by saying that the answer does not lie in structural reform but in world class teaching, a broad and balanced curriculum, and local not central oversight. All the elements, in fact, of a good local school – if not a terribly exciting speech. He is also very good on the ways that the hastily imposed eBacc has led to the tragic abandonment by many schools of arts options when all the evidence shows that a good arts education boosts academic attainment.

No mention, either, of the role of local authorities in education, another long standing negative touchstone for Labour, but Miliband is robust about the need for local oversight and collaboration. Enter the Blunkett plan for a new Director of School standards, a kind of supra local authority position.

It was a shame he couldn’t mention the urgent issue of teacher workload nor tackle the question of fair admissions, a growing problem, as more and more schools with their renowned “freedoms” are able to pick and choose the pupils to teach. And, of course, no word on the disgracefully divisive 11-plus in 15 selective authorities, with its catastrophic implications for the education of poorer children in those areas.

Melissa Benn is co-author of a new e-book “School Myths: And The Evidence That Blows Them Apart”, available now on Kindle

Melissa Benn writes for the Guardian and other publications on social issues, particularly education. She is the author of several books of non-fiction and two novels, including One of Us (2008), and reviews books for the New Statesman

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Commons Confidential: Dave's picnic with Dacre

Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

Sulking David Cameron can’t forgive the Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, for his role in his downfall. The unrelenting hostility of the self-appointed voice of Middle England to the Remain cause felt pivotal to the defeat. So, what a glorious coincidence it was that they found themselves picnicking a couple of motors apart before England beat Scotland at Twickenham. My snout recalled Cameron studiously peering in the opposite direction. On Dacre’s face was the smile of an assassin. Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

The good news is that since Jeremy Corbyn let Theresa May off the Budget hook at Prime Minister’s Questions, most of his MPs no longer hate him. The bad news is that many now openly express their pity. It is whispered that Corbyn’s office made it clear that he didn’t wish to sit next to Tony Blair at the unveiling of the Iraq and Afghanistan war memorial in London. His desire for distance was probably reciprocated, as Comrade Corbyn wanted Brigadier Blair to be charged with war crimes. Fighting old battles is easier than beating the Tories.

Brexit is a ticket to travel. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is lifting its three-trip cap on funded journeys to Europe for MPs. The idea of paying for as many cross-Channel visits as a politician can enjoy reminds me of Denis MacShane. Under the old limits, he ended up in the clink for fiddling accounts to fund his Continental missionary work. If the new rule was applied retrospectively, perhaps the former Labour minister should be entitled to get his seat back and compensation?

The word in Ukip is that Paul Nuttall, OBE VC KG – the ridiculed former Premier League professional footballer and England 1966 World Cup winner – has cold feet after his Stoke mauling about standing in a by-election in Leigh (assuming that Andy Burnham is elected mayor of Greater Manchester in May). The electorate already knows his Walter Mitty act too well.

A senior Labour MP, who demanded anonymity, revealed that she had received a letter after Leicester’s Keith Vaz paid men to entertain him. Vaz had posed as Jim the washing machine man. Why, asked the complainant, wasn’t this second job listed in the register of members’ interests? She’s avoiding writing a reply.

Years ago, this column unearthed and ridiculed the early journalism of George Osborne, who must be the least qualified newspaper editor in history. The cabinet lackey Ben “Selwyn” Gummer’s feeble intervention in the Osborne debate has put him on our radar. We are now watching him and will be reporting back. My snouts are already unearthing interesting information.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution