Nicky Morgan’s remedial class, odd honours and why Labour can’t mention inequality

Nicky Morgan is just Gove with a smile.

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David Cameron moved Michael Gove out of Education after he alienated too many parents and teachers. But his replacement, Nicky Morgan, is just Gove with a smile. She apparently shares his belief that if all children followed the same curriculum as those at fee-charging schools, inequality, unemployment and poverty would miraculously disappear. Those beginning secondary school this September will be “expected” to take the five subjects of the EBacc at 16: English, maths, science, a modern foreign language and history or geography.

Even Kenneth Baker, who was education secretary under Margaret Thatcher, thinks that this is a bad idea. Schools will be marked down if pupils don’t enter the EBacc, and so arts and technical subjects – drama, music, computing, design and anything vocational – will be marginalised. Many children will struggle with the required subjects, making them more disgruntled with school than ever. As there aren’t enough humanities or foreign-language teachers to go round, some will suffer incompetent teaching.

Morgan believes that if all pupils study and perform well in EBacc subjects, they will all have a chance to attend “the top universities” and “get better jobs”. She should read the latest report from the Social Mob­ility and Child Poverty Commission. It claims that elite law and accountancy firms – a source, I guess, of what Morgan would call “better jobs” – want “a ‘polished’ appearance . . . strong communication and debating skills, and . . . a confident manner at interview”. Talented students who have not been “socialised in a middle-class context”, the report suggests, are thus excluded.

Morgan believes studying the EBacc subjects will deliver “social justice”. She needs to go back to the classroom, preferably to study sociology – a subject that, these days, unfortunately offers no “better jobs” whatsoever – and she should take Gove with her.

 

How to win in 1997

According to a new report from the International Monetary Fund, “Widening income inequality is the defining challenge of our time.” Echoing a report from the OECD that I mentioned a few weeks ago, it argues that inequality is bad for economic growth. “More lax hiring and firing regulations . . . and less prevalent collective bargaining and trade unions” are partly to blame. Attempts to reduce inequality “could be reinforced by greater reliance on wealth and property taxes [and] more progressive income taxation”.

Although I admit that I have taken these quotes somewhat out of context – and the report is a “staff discussion note” – you can be sure that if any of the Labour leadership candidates breathed a word about unions, property taxes, progressive tax or inequality being a “defining challenge”, they would be denounced as unreconstructed “reds”. The way things are going, Labour will be perfectly equipped to win the 1997 election again. The trouble is that the next election is in 2020, not 1997.

 

No gongs for hacks

The latest honours list brings the delightful news of awards to two former colleagues, Andreas Whittam Smith and Frances Cairncross. Yet Whittam Smith, after 32 years in journalism – which included co-founding and editing the Independent, the first new broadsheet national daily in a century – gets his knighthood “for public service, particularly to the Church of England”, on the strength of his being first Church estates commissioner for a mere 13 years. Cairncross gets her damehood for “services to higher education and economics”. She was rector of Exeter College, Oxford, for ten years but her career in journalism lasted 37 years, of which only part was spent writing about economics – she was, for example, once the Guardian’s women’s page editor.

I know that in public esteem hacks vie for bottom place with estate agents. But neither Whittam Smith nor Cairncross could ever be accused of lack of integrity. It is a strange system that recognises people for performing minor bureaucratic functions but ignores the major achievements of their lives.

Race to the bottom

My old friend Trevor Phillips, the former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, is much loved by the Mail newspapers because he is a black man willing to challenge “political correctness”. In February 2002, he wrote in the Mail on Sunday: “The old-fashioned discipline of Caribbean teachers, uniforms, detentions . . . and, yes, even the possibility of corporal punishment . . . could stop many a criminal career before it begins.” On 11 June 2015, commenting on a remarks by a high court judge, he wrote in the Daily Mail (I quote the headline, a fair summary of the piece): “Making excuses for immigrants who hit their children isn’t liberal, it’s racist”.

It is always tricky for white, middle-class liberals such as myself and Anna Pauffley, the offending high court judge, to decide when it’s racist to “make excuses” for ethnic minorities and when it isn’t. We should be grateful to both Phillips and the Mail for keeping us up to speed on the subject.

 

On the political stage

Since the election, I keep seeing members of the dreaded “aspirational classes” (to whom Ed Miliband allegedly made insufficient appeal) everywhere. As brilliantly portrayed by Imelda Staunton in the musical Gypsy, now at the Savoy Theatre in London, Rose, the mother of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, strikes me as another aspirational parent, like Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Rose’s life is dominated by aspirations for her two daughters to become vaudeville stars, just as Loman’s is by aspirations for his two sons to become entrepreneurs. Both parents’ lives end in bitterness and frustration, because the aspirations were for themselves, not their children.

Miller wrote his play in 1948; Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents wrote Gypsy a decade later. How extraordinary it is that American dramas of more than 50 years ago should provide the most telling commentary on a subject that now obsesses British politicians

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

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