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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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.