Tuesday 10 November 2020

Labour's Backpedalling on Schools

What a lovely, gushing interview with Wes Streeting. No hard questions allowed, instead the shadow schools minister spends time talking about his background, why he's passionate about ensuring state school pupils aren't left behind, and has a pop at the Tories about their school dinners fiasco. Nothing objectionable or problematic, apart from two comments.

The National Education Service, which was variously trailed under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, is now in the bin. A "slogan" according to the Graun write up of the interview. And then there was this, which is worth quoting in its entirety:

"In my constituency I’ve got local authority schools, free schools, academies, I’ve got a grammar school, I’ve got independent schools that aren’t far away – and the interesting thing is, whether I am walking into a local authority school or a free school or an academy, the name above the door matters less than what goes on inside the building. I think we would all agree that we wouldn’t start from here if we were designing an education system but this is where we are, and we have to make the system work."

Let's look at these two points. As the holder of the shadow schools brief, I suppose the previous leadership's life-long education service wasn't of much interest. Readers will recall this was a proposal to open up adult education and ease access to colleges and universities so people could drop in and out of education throughout their lives. This isn't some frippery or the promise of a semi-permanent life as a students' union barfly, but an essential complement to how labour markets are likely to develop over the next half-century. We know advances in robotics and artificial intelligence are going to put a lot of jobs under pressure, and the development of new industries are not likely to generate new occupations in anywhere near the same numbers as previous waves of technological innovation. The aim of the education service was to catch people put into this position of skills obsolescence and allow them, at no costs to themselves, to retrain. A good common sense policy nor one spilling over with the radical potential to overthrow capitalism, so we can only speculate why Wes simply dismissed it. Perhaps the decommodification element with the removal of tuition fees, something latter day Blairites remained wedded to, had something to do with it.

And then the idea of the schooling mix. This whole "all schools must be good schools" stuff is not peculiar to Wes Streeting. Angela Rayner has said as much in the past, but pretending it doesn't matter is itself is dogmatic and, for the Labour Party, utterly mistaken. Again there might be an element of Blairist revanchism here for Wes, who is fundamentally wedded to this sort of politics. The "mix" in school provision began under Thatcher, carried on by John Major, and was enthusiastically taken up by Tony Blair. As far as the Tories were concerned, their restructuring of education was far from the pragmatic "what works" philosophy New Labour occasionally toyed with, but a project to break the strength of the teaching unions, smash teachers' professional autonomy, gut schools of local democratic input and accountability to parents, and centralise the curriculum under state control. This isn't to say the old system was perfect or was without its share of failures, but the Tory approach was a policy offensive aimed at two groups - teachers and local authorities - who stood in the way of their efforts to centralise the state and transform state education into uncritical vocational fodder.

Trying to make this "work" is to carry on with a system that pushes teachers into quitting with stupid workloads, ensures more resources go to "better" schools, allows academy chains - completely without account - to make changes to the curricula and determine disciplinary policies while "chief executives" pocket huge salaries, gives free schools the right to take on anyone who fancies themselves a teacher without qualifications, and, of course, union busting. The issue of "quality" in education is inseparable from these issues, unless one is gormless enough to trust grades as a simple reflection of what is and what isn't a good school experience.

What Wes is in danger of doing here, and I'm sure he's conscious of it, is opposing the producer to the consumer interest - a stubborn characteristic of New Labour theory. Usually associated with His Tonyness's efforts at "public sector reform", this starts out with the assumption workers are lazy and strive to make the service they're employed by amenable to them and their interest, all at the expense of the "consumer" - the hard working taxpayer. We last saw these arguments aired by Jeremy Hunt during his confected dispute with junior doctors over weekend working. Needless to say, opposing producers and consumers is irresponsible politics for any Labour politician. By attacking workers, or being seen to be fine with unjust and dysfunctional systems letting down kids in school and driving teachers from the profession, Labour figures who do so are attacking the party's base and, ultimately, making fighting an election more difficult in the future. This basic fact of political physics shouldn't need explaining, but it does frequently and repeatedly to those who fancy themselves election winning professionals.

Unfortunately, as if confirmation was needed, Wes's interview is another dog whistle to the right wing press and politics opinion formers that the drift away from the platform Keir Starmer was elected on continues.

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SpiritSkill said...

I've been saying for sometime - usually with regard to Starmer's public utterances - that you if you seek to appropriate the talking points of your political opponents then they will attach their meanings to their vocabulary even when it comes out of your mouth

Blissex said...

«opposing the producer to the consumer interest - a stubborn characteristic of New Labour theory. Usually associated with His Tonyness's efforts at "public sector reform"»

An authority like David Willets remarked:

«And behind it was an appeal to the consumer - usually female — over the interests of the producer — usually male and unionised. This potent postwar mix contains many of the ingredients of “Thatcherism.”»

Similar words were used by John Major in his autobiography to characterize thatcherism. Now an interesting aspect is that most people are both producers and consumers, and rely more on being producers as without that they don't have the means to consume; except of course for business and property rentiers, who can consume without producing anything.

Chris Gravell said...

This is so good Phil. Thank you.

Dialectician1 said...

"Education is the key to breaking the cycle of long-term deprivation and dependency passed down between generations"

"....the system will offer the same opportunities to every child"

"....we have to make the system work"

(Quotes from Wes Streeting in the Guardian article 10/5/2020)

Yes, it's worth paying attention to what Labour is saying about education. If you read the Guardian article Phil alludes to above, the message from Streeting is nothing more than regurgitated Blairism - which is, in case we have all forgotten, allowing the state to withdraw from its redistributive commitments. Words like 'equality' were replaced with words like 'opportunity'. In other words, it was up to individuals to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, rather than using instruments of the state to redistribute resources. The key word here is 'meritocracy'. So, if you are clever (like Streeting) or entrepreneurial, the world is your oyster. For those who fail, you can only feel shame because you have nobody to blame but yourself.

BCFG said...

I presume the only leftists now in the labour party are the fake ones?

BCFG said...

"Words like 'equality' were replaced with words like 'opportunity'. In other words, it was up to individuals to pull themselves up by their bootstraps"

From each according to their privileged abilities to each according to their background!