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

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder