Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
14 May 2007

The thinking: Needed: courage and ingenuity

Peter Wilby on why education remains the priority

By Peter Wilby

One effect of Gordon Brown’s impending move to No 10 is that we can utter the word “egalitarian” again. The prominent Brownite Ed Miliband, for example, uses it eight times in his 12-page essay for the latest publication from the Institute for Public Policy Research (Politics for a New Generation), even daring to refer to an “egalitarian project”.

If this is to be more than rhetoric to reinvigorate Labour activists, the Brownites need some hard strategic thinking. Anybody who has worked in the Treasury will know that trying to make 21st-century Britain more equal is like trying to push water uphill. Globalisation – and Britain, through financial services, depends highly on the most globalised industry of all – tends to make the distribution of income and wealth more unequal. The answer, according to standard new Labour thinking, is to boost the incomes of the toiling masses by giving them more marketable skills. Miliband doesn’t demur. “The starting point must be education,” he declares.

I will leave aside my scepticism as to whether this is indeed the solution. My concern here is whether a Brown government could design an education system that improves the performance of the bottom 40 per cent. For the past 25 years, governments have bet the house on parental choice and Labour, with academies, trust schools and so on, has multiplied the options available. In theory, “bad” schools, mostly in deprived areas, should be dying for lack of customers. But choice doesn’t work without slack in the system. Again, Treasury experience should tell Brownites that empty school places are expensive and wasteful.

So schools choose parents, not the other way round. Here the market does work as theory predicts, with schools excluding “bad” parents, or at least “bad” children, if they possibly can. The result is growing segregation – some racial, but most social – within the comprehensive system. Those children perceived as undesirable, for whatever reason, are clustered in “failing schools”, making the schools even less attractive, not least to teachers. Yet research suggests children from poor homes perform best if schooled with those from more affluent backgrounds. If schools were mixed socially and academically, the number of “bad” ones would plummet. For these reasons, Labour MPs insisted on strengthening the school admissions code in the latest Education Act.

Many devices by which schools excluded undesirable children were outlawed. But the code still allows selection by proximity, and richer parents pay premium prices for houses close to “good” schools.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

The new code encourages solutions. Councils can band children by ability and allow each school to select only a limited number from the top band. Or they can decide by lottery which parents get places in over-subscribed schools. In either case, some middle-class parents get bounced into “bad” schools. Up with that they will not put. It is no use telling them that, if their children attend, the schools will soon be “good”. They will create a political stink, as they did when Brighton introduced a lottery this year.

Content from our partners
How to create a responsible form of “buy now, pay later”
“Unions are helping improve conditions for drivers like me”
Transport is the core of levelling up

That’s the problem for a Brown government. New Labour’s central aim was to secure middle-class commitment to public services which, it feared, would otherwise wither away. It promised levels of choice and personal service like those in the private sector. In other words, whatever middle-class parents want, they should get. After this month’s election results, Brown won’t be keen to deny them. But how can schools then do what is required for Miliband’s “egalitarian project”?

The think-tank Compass’s website offers ideas (see “Education: a model for public service reform” at uk/publications/thinkpieces). Very small classes in deprived-area schools might attract even the most prejudiced middle-class parents. Choice could be replaced by a new form of accountability, in which schools are run by area boards voted in by parents of under-18s.

No doubt there are drawbacks to both proposals. The solution favoured by the education department’s most influential adviser, Sir Cyril Taylor – to create “partnerships” so that parents apply to clusters of schools, rather than individual schools – may be better. But a Brown government will need courage and ingenuity to reconcile egalitarian ambitions with political realities.

All mouth . . .

We are now the party of the whole country
David Cameron on the Tories’ electoral gains

He didn’t do it by choosing the easy way. He did it by sound judgement, holding his nerve and putting the long-term interests of Britain first. At general election time, that is still the route to victory
Tony Blair praises Gordon Brown’s handling of the economy as he finally endorses him

I believe that it is in all our interests that the incoming prime minister should have the widest opportunity to make a fresh start
John Reid decides not to challenge Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership

Scotland has changed for good and for ever Alex Salmond on the SNP’s narrow victory

We would obviously have preferred more votes, more seats and more councils
Menzies Campbell on Liberal Democrat losses

If there is a hint of the miraculous about these hope-filled times, and there is, then it is very important that we acknowledge those who believed that miracles could happen
Irish President Mary McAleese on the return of devolution to Northern Ireland