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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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage