Labour needs to be bolder on education

The real "One Nation" opportunity.

Education is one area about which Ed Miliband has had little to say – but it is actually rife with radical "One Nation" policies. 

If Ed Miliband was nervous before his "One Nation" conference speech, he at least knew that a few lines were guaranteed to attract the desired response from his audience. Like “Michael Gove”.

The pantomime boos that greeted Miliband’s mention of Gove’s name showed the animosity Labour holds him in. But while criticisms of Gove’s policies as Education Secretary might be an expedient way of getting a few cheers, they miss a deeper point. Whatever the merits of Gove’s solutions to British education, he is at least right in his underlying diagnosis that something isn’t working. The attainment gap between private and state education is the highest in Europe.

Labour’s educational policy is much better known for what it opposes – above all, Gove’s free schools - than what it actually supports. The party’s policy on academies, the centerpiece of New Labour’s education reforms, remains somewhat confused. This had better change, and fast: while both Labour and the Conservatives exaggerate the significance of free schools, academies are where Gove’s true radicalism has been. After the last election, there were 203 academies; there are now 1957 (compared to 79 free schools). Labour needs to outline exactly how it would deal with these new academies and indeed formulate its vision for education in this country. Miliband’s outlining of plans for “the forgotten 50 per cent” is certainly a positive step. But there remains a fundamental problem: Labour needs to lay out coherent ideas for how to improve state schools when substantially greater investment isn't deemed a viable option.

For inspiration, Labour needs only to turn to the NHS. As schools do, the NHS has to compete with private alternatives. Why do the public have a better perception of state hospitals than state schools? One of the reasons is that, while the best teachers can move away from the state sector that is not true of the best doctors – the principle that those who work in the private health sector must also contribute to the NHS helps mitigate differences in the quality of care provided in the two. Doctors have been state-subsidised to do their degrees (as is still the case under the new tuition fees) and it seems only right that their skills should benefit all, not just those who can afford it.

The idea is, perhaps, the very embodiment of "One Nationism" at work. And it could relatively easily be mimicked where schools are concerned, mandating that all teachers spend at least half their career in the state sector.

For all the life advantages private schools give their pupils only so much can be apportioned to simply better facilities. More than anything, parents pay for the best teaching; and, while there are many excellent teachers in the state sector, a disproportionate number of the best teachers are at private schools. A sensible policy to amend this would provide a compelling vision of how Labour plans to improve the quality of state schools.

This could be accompanied by asking more of private schools in return for their charitable status. While opening up school playing fields is a worthy idea and should be extended, there is ample scope for more imaginative thinking: for instance, mandating that private schools invite pupils from nearby state schools to special classes for Oxbridge candidates.

Labour can't allow its educational policy to be caricatured as being mere defenders of a status quo that isn't working. Just as investment provides no guarantee of tangible improvement in education, so a shortage of it needn’t stop state schools getting better. Indeed, an absence of money has actually created a climate rifer for radical educational ideas. As Labour proclaims to speak for "One Nation" it needs to be proposing them.

 

Ed Milliband. Photograph: Getty Images

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Why Philip Green's fall should bring down the honours system – but won't

Sir Shifty may fall in disgrace, but our ridiculous system will endure. No matter what's happening in the rest of politics.

Sir Philip Green’s Efficiency Review (2010) is his Das Kapital and it is still, happily, online. You can, if you wish, smirk at his recommendations to the government, which were solicited by David Cameron, I imagine, because when he stood next to Green he looked not like a 17th-century woodcut but like a tall, handsome semi-aristocrat.

“There is no motivation to save money or to treat cash ‘as your own’,” Green grumbles, before complaining, “There are inconsistent commercial skills across departments.” I am weeping with laughter at the whole report. But I’m not one of those BHS employees watching their pension ­vanish as the hideous cushions, throws and bedspreads pile up on the Green family yacht Lionheart. I instantly rename the yacht 14-Day Return Policy No More.

The days when Green could write efficiency reviews for people to ignore are gone. It is said that he could lose his knighthood, because that would be exciting and pointless. If so, I hope the ceremony features the formal rending of a garment from the BHS sale bin – perhaps a torn sock will be flung at his head? The Queen will not be happy, because de-knighting makes the ancient system of patronage look as ridiculous as it really is. Do intercessors between man and God make mistakes? Would they raise a man the Daily Mail now calls “Sir Shifty”? (I checked whether there was a Sir Shifty among the knights of the Round Table who flogged the Holy Grail to a passing tinker. There was not.)

Lord Melbourne advised Queen Victoria not to attempt to make her husband, Albert, a king, for if the people knew that they could make kings, they might unmake them. Green will discover this in his tiny way. But the elites should not hide their baubles. One fallen knight will not destroy the system (and I cannot think that Green will take £571m from his Lionheart cushion budget to save his knighthood by replenishing the BHS pension fund, because a knighthood is, in essence, just a tiny Bentley Continental that you wear over your nipple). One fallen knight should destroy the system but it won’t, because human conceit and docility are without end. Green will be shunned. Nothing will change.

One might have hoped that the Brexit vote would have alerted Cameron to the abyss between the electorate and the elected. (Even Alastair Campbell, chomping against Brexit, seemed to forget that he was as complicit in the alienation of voters as anyone else: government by sofa, teeth and war.) The response was glib, even for Cameron, a man so glib that I sometimes think he is a reflection in a pond. Brexit hit him like someone caught in a mild shower without an umbrella. He hummed at the lesson that history dealt him; he hummed as he left his page. It was the hum of the alpha Etonian caught out in a mistake, yes, but it was still a bloody hum.

His next act was to increase pay-offs to favoured courtiers against civil service advice and at public expense; then, it was reported, he nominated his spin doctor Craig Oliver and his former spin doctor Gabby Bertin for peerages, because the upper house needs more PRs. He has learned nothing. I wish him a relaxed retirement in which he will, apparently, write his four-page memoir, David Cameron: My Struggle (sub-subtitle: Eton Mess?). I hope he does not attempt to deny “the prosciutto affair”, because there is no need. It was not true. It was too pure a metaphor.

So the honours system, an essential part of our alienating politics, alongside dodgy donors, duck houses and George Galloway, endures in its worst form as conventional politics fails. It is a donkey sanctuary for political friends and Bruce Forsyth. I am not suggesting that everyone who has been honoured is dreadful – some lollipop ladies deserve to be patronised with an OBE (when there is no E any more), I am sure, and the lords, some of whom are excellent, are the functional opposition now – but the system can no longer be defended by the mirth potential of watching politicians ponder what light-entertainment celebrities might swing a marginal before being posthumously accused of rape. We must find something better before the house burns down. Perhaps a robust parliamentary democracy?

The problem is best expressed by the existence of a specialist consultancy called Awards Intelligence, which engages in “VIP brand-building” by soliciting awards. It sells “awards plans” from £795, which I could well imagine Philip Green perusing as he bobs about aboard Lionheart, were it not too late. The Awards Intelligence website tells us so much, though obliviously, about the narcissism of modern politics that I am tempted to reproduce it in full. But I will merely report that it asks:

"Did you know that you can join the House of Lords on a part-time basis as an Independent Crossbench Peer or a political peer affiliated to one of the main politial parties – even if you have ongoing work, family or community commitments!"

The message from Awards Intelligence, which boasts of a 50 per cent success rate, is clear: the legislature is part-time, it exists to “instil trust, add credibility and provide a platform for you to have your say” – and it can’t always spell “political”.

Sir Shifty and Awards Intelligence do not constitute the worst crisis in the history of honours, dreadful though they are. During the First World War the royal German cousins were stripped of their garters, so that British soldiers would not have to kill men of higher rank. But it is time for the Queen to stop pinning toys on nipples. They are part of a political system sweeping us, swiftly, towards the night.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue