Give children a break

Peter Wilby calls for less micro-managing of schools

There is something very curious about new Labour's education policies.

As Alan Smithers, one of the country's most respected educational researchers, says in a new report that the government took responsibility for delivery and "began treating schools as the branches of a large company, setting performance targets against which they would be judged". Yet, having imposed rigid controls, Labour devised complex new ways of allowing schools more "independence" and "flexibility".

The Smithers report (Blair's Education: an International Perspective, published by the Sutton Trust) is sceptical about the effectiveness of target-setting. First, the rise in reading and maths scores for 11-year-olds merely continued a trend that started before 1997. After 2000, the rising curve flattened out.

Second, the Statistics Commission reported that the tests in English for 11-year-olds became easier between 1996 and 1999. Third, England's rise in the international league tables has not been as clear-cut as ministers suggest. The position of our year-nine pupils did not change significantly, with England still well below nations such as Singapore, Korea, Japan, Holland and Hungary. Our ten-year-olds did surge up the tables, reaching third in reading and sixth in maths but, as Smithers notes, we tend to exclude more children, on various grounds of incapacity, than other countries.

Fourth, the testing and targeting regime appears to have turned many young people off education altogether: truancy from secondary schools is up nearly 20 per cent and the number of 17-year-olds who are in neither education nor training is up almost 10 per cent. Fifth, if the recent UN Children's Fund report (An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries) is to be believed, our children are now the most miserable in the developed world.

Smithers believes that schools do better if they are independent and he supports new Labour's creation of academies and trust schools under private sponsorship. Even after allowing for home background, he argues, private schools, including those dependent on public funding, are superior across the world. I find his evidence unconvincing; he casually dismisses the superior performance of government schools in Japan, Switzerland, Italy and Scandinavia as "exceptions".

It is simpler, surely, for ministers to stop micro-managing publicly funded schools than to enlist second-hand car salesmen and religious crackpots to run them instead.

Smithers has a second, sounder proposal. Labour has used a single set of tests to do different things: monitor national progress, set targets, assess schools, grade children and inform parents. The first function at least should be separated. If ministers stake their reputations on reaching targets, they will not collect and present national results dispassionately. More important, tests used to assess children and schools cannot tell us if standards are truly rising or falling. For obvious reasons, the same tests cannot be given every year and schools will narrow teaching to concentrate on the targeted areas.

Effective monitoring entails testing a representative sample of children, not all of them. To do this, Smithers proposes an independent body similar to the Bank of England's monetary committee.

I agree. Politicians face a crisis of public trust. Credible independent bodies are needed, in this and other areas, to report on the policy outcomes. They should have budgets to publicise their findings widely, through press advertisements and household circulars.

Politicians might then adopt better policies and voters recognise genuine achievement.

The Smithers proposal, however, would relieve pressure on schools only a little. I would also stop publication of league tables covering test and exam results. More detailed information than exists now - results in individual subjects, for example - should be available to prospective parents at each school. But the results should not be published centrally. Apart from truancy rates, the education department releases no other information on individual schools and it implies that what is testable overrides everything else in importance.

Then we wonder why our children are bored and unhappy.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times