Education: This is what Labour would do differently

After criticism from our political editor Rafael Behr that Labour's education policy was vague and indistinguishable from that of the Conservatives, the shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg responds.

1. Do you support the dramatic increase in academies seen under the coalition?
 
Labour set up the academies programme and, in government, we would continue to support academy status. However, the mistake Michael Gove makes is thinking that school standards are a simple numbers game. The sign on the school gate matters less than the quality of leadership and teaching. Labour’s academies programme was about turning round some of the toughest schools in the country. The most important thing to drive up standards is to improve the quality of teaching but Gove is allowing unqualified teachers in academies and free schools. We would end that scandal.
 
2. How would Labour’s promised “parentled academies” differ from free schools?
 
We won’t continue Gove’s free schools policy; it’s a flawed programme in which he decides where schools open, even if the local community doesn’t want them. He sets up schools in areas where there is a surplus of places, while children elsewhere struggle to find a school place. Under Labour there will be new schools led by parents, teachers and other innovative groups but they will open where they are needed and where there is real parent demand – and they will be held to the same high standards as other schools. We’ve asked David Blunkett to look into the best way to set up these parent academies.
 
3. Would Labour keep the Pupil Premium?
 
We want to keep the Pupil Premium because I support the principle of providing additional funding to pupils from lower-income backgrounds. However, one of the worries is that, as it stands, the government’s Pupil Premium is not really additional money. As many heads say, it doesn’t make up for other cuts in school budgets.
 
4. Would Labour consider removing tax breaks for private schools?
 
Private schools need to do far more to meet their charitable obligations. It can’t be enough just to help a couple of pupils; they need to consider how they play their part in raising standards in their local community. Some schools do play their part – supporting local primaries, setting up academies or providing access to specialist teaching, equipment or sports fields. If private schools don’t meet their charitable obligations, Labour will take what action is necessary.
 
5. Is Labour still committed to lowering tuition fees to a maximum of £6,000?
 
If Labour was in government now, we would lower the cap to £6,000. David Cameron’s decision to raise fees to £9,000 in 2011 was unnecessarily punitive for students. We are now looking at every possible option that would enable us to provide a fair offer for students in the next parliament and keep universities on a sound financial footing.
 
Twigg adds:
 
Education has always had a moral purpose as well as an economic one. In the 1920s, R H Tawney argued that education was one of the areas with the biggest “indefensible inequalities”. Nearly a century later, you are still far too likely to fail at school if you come from a poorer background and, in particular, if you are a white working-class boy or girl.
 
My mum grew up in the East End and, despite being bright, she left school at 15 as many girls of her generation did. She always told my sister and me that we mustn’t make the same mistake – we should go to university. I’m grateful for my teachers. Thanks to them I became the first pupil from Southgate Comprehensive to get into Oxford.
 
That is an opportunity afforded to too few pupils. For example, if you grow up in Buckinghamshire, you are ten times more likely to be offered a place at a Russell Group university than if you grow up in Barking and Dagenham. Not a single young person from Barking and Dagenham (or, indeed, from Barnsley, Swindon or Sandwell) got into Oxbridge last year.
 
Amazingly, boys who are bright but poor lag two and a half years behind their classmates from richer homes when it comes to reading ability. As well as failing pupils, we are wasting a huge pool of talent and hampering our ability to compete globally.
 
I’m angry that Gove’s changes to A-levels will hamper the chances of many state-school pupils. Cambridge University has warned that getting rid of AS-levels as a progressive qualification will “jeopardise over a decade’s progress towards fairer access”. A Labour government would drive up the quality of teaching, by expanding schemes such as Teach First, providing incentives to bright graduates to teach at challenging schools and supporting training and development through a new college of teaching.
 
We will tackle underperformance wherever we see it, providing “notices to improve” if a free school or academy is failing. We will reshape the curriculum. That includes action for the forgotten 50 per cent of young people who don’t go on to university.
 
We will create a new, gold-standard technical baccalaureate, which will include rigorous vocational courses accredited by businesses and a high-quality work placement. And we will ensure that all pupils do English and maths to the age of 18, as we know how important these are in work and in life.
 
Tawney argued that “what a wise parent would wish for their children, so the state must wish for all its children”. My mum was ambitious for my sister and me. We must have that same aspiration for all.
Schools in - children line up to return to the classroom. Photograph: Getty Images.

Stephen Twigg is shadow minister for constitutional reform and MP for Liverpool West Derby

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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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