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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496