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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The wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.