Whither Labour, whither education?

As we approach the general election it might be worth thinking about Labour’s education policy, such as it is. Reading Education and Children (available here), for example, one is struck firstly by the willed amnesia that can blame the current government for an approach to education that was, if not initiated, then certainly established by the last Labour government, ie ‘narrowly focus[ing] on what schools are called, rather than how they teach’. It was, if it even needs to be stated, the last Labour government that decided ‘what schools are called’ was important. Alistair Campbell’s sneering dismissal of ‘bog-standard comprehensives’ opened a door for the subsequent Conservative government and media commentators (see here and here). It was the Labour government that insisted progress could only come, in Blair’s words, in a ‘post-comprehensive era’ and therefore schools had to become academies: as an exercise in rebranding for the marketplace, this transformation was vital to a ‘creeping privatisation’ and, according to Stephen Ball, ‘the end of state education’. Nothing in Education and Children or, indeed, Tristram Hunt’s latest speech suggests that lessons might have been learned by a Labour party desperate to revitalise social democracy; if anything, the most significant aspect of Hunt’s comments on teaching is the fact that nothing is new (for an interesting critique, see here).

As always, the problem for Labour, as it hopes to emerge from opposition, is that it needs a narrative that distances the party (and those individuals who have form as participants in previous Labour regimes) from the Conservative party, while also confirming its firm adherence to whatever capitalist creed passes currently for ‘common sense’. Consequently, when he first became education spokesperson, Hunt lost no time in supporting for performance-related pay; and when he applauded the ‘perfect storm of emerging technologies that possess the power to transform the way teachers carry out their craft and young people learn’, he simply announced a new phase in the ongoing measurement of teaching effectiveness: the assumption that teaching is only ‘good’ (if not ‘outstanding’) if it conforms to a narrow definition of ‘what can be observed’ is an example of the worst aspects of nineteenth-century positivism. It is odd, indeed, that a party hoping to be seen as modern and future-looking remains stuck in the past.

Indeed, Hunt’s approach to education policy can be usefully compared to that of his predecessor as a prospective Labour education secretary, David Blunkett in the mid‑1990s. At that time it might have been asked if Labour would challenge the Conservative reforms after 1988: would the new Labour government make a firm commitment to state education generally and to comprehensive education in particular? And then, in 1996, Blunkett announced a ‘new compact with the teaching profession’, including a commitment to teachers’ professional development and a new General Teaching Council (which has now become Hunt’s Royal College of Teaching), as well as the obligatory reference to discipline (also echoed by Hunt in an early speech designed to establish credentials). Re-reading this Blunkett article one is hard-pushed to find anything original in Hunt’s version. If Hunt now sings the praises of ‘remarkable new digital technologies’ Blunkett himself made much of a commitment to ‘equip teachers and children to respond to the technology of the future’; so perhaps Labour politicians in opposition will always attempt to find ways to recycle Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat’ speech in 1963. Half a century ago that was an attempt to appear modern and it does seem to be the best Labour can offer as a ‘big idea’.

Hunt is clearly hampered by Labour’s own record in office. One wonders if, when speaking this week of an ‘exam factory’ (following this early denunciation of ‘a government obsessed about our GCSE, A-level and university route’) he might have had in mind the opportunity presented to Labour a little more than ten years ago in 2004, an opportunity to have a significant impact on the experience of education (and even be modern). For the Tomlinson Report proposed a Post-14 system that was both unified and flexible, providing all students with opportunities to succeed rather than fail. It was, of course, rejected by a Labour government fearful of the outcry when A-levels were abolished. Consequently, any concern for ‘the forgotten 50 per cent’ (Children and Education, 5) will likely strike a false note when Labour continues to promote a divisive system through its so-called ‘new gold standard Technical Bacalaureate’.

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