Left out of breadth

A government manifesto promotes learning outside the classroom, but without funding the poorest chil

Parents who send their children to private schools often do so because of the breadth of extra-curricular provision. Sport, drama, adventure, music, the arts - it would be a poor independent school that failed to offer all these.

Observers sometimes forget that boarding schools have greater access to young people's time and that many state school children have an equally rich diet of activities - but they do these things with parents, not with their schools.

The fact remains that out-of-classroom provision in the state sector is limited. While many state schools have a rich variety of activities, few follow the independent model and less than one in ten state schools are thought to have a residential trip as an entitlement for all their pupils. The usual reason is cost, yet the benefits are huge. Study after study have shown the value of this kind of learning, whether it is the Duke of Edinburgh Award, a biology field trip or a youth orchestra. Schools that offer a broad diet of out-of-classroom activities experience a learning gain that is reflected in their academic results.

Concern about safety has also had a negative impact. But, statistically, children are safer on school visits than they are in almost any other context, including at home asleep in their beds. The few fatal accidents that occur are newsworthy precisely because they are so rare.

The perception that schools trips are risky has not been helped by government advice on out-of-school activities that focused almost exclusively on safety. The Department for Children, Schools and Families has for years made available a huge document on health and safety policy on education visits, but said very little about the quality of the experience or the importance of learning outside the classroom.

That situation changed in 2006 when the government launched a Learning Outside the Classroom manifesto. This took the form of a series of pledges, with local authorities and education organisations invited to sign up to show their commitment. There was the promise of a residential experience for every state school pupil, alongside a programme to promote and support out-of-classroom learning.

In October the government will launch a new "badge" scheme to help schools and parents identify high-quality providers, alongside an "out and about" package of help and guidance for schools, parents and providers.

A rich irony for those with long education memories is the strong theme of experiential learning that runs through the guidance. Here is a government document that celebrates hands-on learning of the type derided when Chris Woodhead was chief inspector of schools. This is not a return to the hands-off learning of the 1960s and 1970s that was criticized by James Callaghan for letting children do what they liked "as long as they were happy", but it is about valuing active learning over the accumulation of content.

The question that is unlikely to be answered in October is the thorniest. Who pays? This question concentrated minds immediately after the manifesto launch, when Karen Brush, chief executive of the Institute for Outdoor Learning, said: "I don't see a lot of cash on the table. Over a quarter of young people live below the poverty line. It is vital that financial support is available if those young people are to benefit."

Schools skirt around this issue by asking parents for a "voluntary" contribution to support out-of-school activities. The classic case is the curriculum trip to a museum or activity centre during the school day. The law is clear on this kind of trip: if the activity takes place wholly or largely within or during the school day, no charge can be made and children whose parents might not be able to afford the trip should not be disadvantaged.

But there are many examples of schools where such children are disadvantaged; either because their parents are pressured to pay, or in some cases because the child is excluded from the activity.

Without significant funding the answer may be to define some things as an entitlement and others as enrichment. Schools may not be able to offer a ski trip to every pupil, but they ought to be able to offer an adventurous activity. Schools may not be able to run an orchestra, but all pupils should have the opportunity to sing and perform.

It is vital to free teachers and pupils from the shackles of the classroom. We learn through interaction; by seeing, doing, touching and speaking. We should open the classroom door and introduce children to the world. Sadly, there is no requirement for teachers to be trained in how to do this. That must change.

Phil Revell is chief executive of the National Governors' Association and represents school governors on the National Advisory Group for Learning Outside the Classroom

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class

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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