All schools must thrive

Rafael Behr sets out the dividing lines on education.

Michael Gove’s plans to allow parents to set up their own “free” schools was one of few policies that the Conservatives developed fully while still in opposition. Once in government, they wasted no time; Gove set about pursuing his agenda with a revolutionary zeal that even his allies describe as Bolshevik. Underpinning the policy is a conviction that local authorities tolerate mediocrity and that teaching unions protect weak staff. To serve pupils and parents better, the complacent “Educational Establishment” must be broken up. Besides new free schools, more existing schools should have academy status, which will give them greater independence over the curriculum as well as more leeway in hiring, firing and pay.

And Labour is against all that?

Not quite. Academy status was devised under Tony Blair as a targeted intervention in inner-city schools where previous regeneration efforts had failed. But the party was divided, the left especially suspicious. The momentum went out of the programme when Gordon Brown took over, though the idea was not quite repudiated. That ambiguity has continued under Ed Miliband.

But Labour is against free schools, right?

Yes . . . and no. Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary, has said his party would “not continue” with the free schools programme, but allow those already “in the pipeline” to reach fruition. He also supports the idea of “parent-led” academies, which sound not unlike free schools.

So how exactly does Labour policy differ from Tory policy?
 
In Gove’s version, market forces are supposed to drive improvement in schools. Breaking up the old structures is meant to bring competitive new players into the system. The element of choice – parents shopping between schools – is supposed to act as an incentive for everyone to raise their game. But that means new schools muscling in where there are already enough places for local children, which Labour sees as an inefficient use of public resources. It would be better, says Twigg, to target academies in places where provision is lacking and to promote partnership and collaboration rather than competition. Labour’s concern is that some free schools will siphon off middle-class families, leaving their poorer neighbours concentrated in struggling local-authority schools. But the main difference is ideological. Labour recoils from the idea that education is a consumer marketplace in which non-state providers compete for parental custom.
 
But the new providers don’t profit from it.
 
Not yet. Devotees of Gove’s approach see no reason why they shouldn’t. Indeed, some worry that it won’t work properly unless profit-making is permitted, because that is what will attract newcomers in sufficient numbers to make the field competitive. That much was understood back in 2010 but a political judgement was made that the public was not ready for a policy that could be attacked as privatisation. There is a widespread assumption that a second-term Conservative government would go down that path.
 
Without those Lib Dems getting in the way.
 
Quite. The Lib Dems have gone along with Gove’s agenda but they draw the line at schools being run for profit. Before the days of coalition, the party’s power base was in local government, and that means a lot of activists and councillors who don’t like being told by Gove that they are part of the problem rather than the solution when it comes to educating the nation’s children.
 
So what’s the Lib Dems’ education policy?
 
The party is very proud of the Pupil Premium, introduced in April 2011 – a funding device that diverts resources to schools in proportion to the number of children receiving free school meals.
 
Does it work?
 
The impact is disputed. The allocated money gets moved around within limited school budgets and the difference it makes to children from low-income families is – judging within the wider fiscal story – easily outweighed by cuts to tax credits, benefits and other services. That said, it is doubtful that an incoming Labour government would scrap the Pupil Premium.
 
What about maths and stuff?
 
There is also a revolution under way in the curriculum, which has hardly been less controversial. Gove’s preference is for a classically conservative curriculum, emphasising narrative history, the orthodox canon of English literature and bringing primary school children into earlier contact with fractions. At secondary level, there should be less coursework and harder exams.
 
Gove’s enemies depict him as a fantasist trying to re-create classrooms of the 1950s. His supporters say it is an overdue assault on fashionable “progressive teaching” nonsense and the soft tyranny of an all-musthave- prizes attitude that fails children by instilling low expectations. We are in a global race, say the Tories, and we need to get training early. The pitch to parents is that every neighbourhood school can have the highachieving, pushy ethos that attracts those who can afford it to the private sector.
 
And what happens to private schools?
 
In Gove’s utopian vision, they federate with state schools, or even become academies. 
 
And in reality?
 
They carry on fast-tracking the progeny of the upper-middle classes into top universities and elite professions.

 

Michael Gove. Photograph: Getty Images

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle