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

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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