Ed Miliband. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496