Why is the Labour Party so quiet on education?

17 Feb 2014

With all the furore over the sacking of head of Ofsted head Baroness Morgan, Michael Gove has been getting criticism from all corners in recent weeks. What must surely be one of the coalition’s most unpopular ministers, further denting his credibility with a decision that appears to have been taken with underhand motives. However, in spite of the fact that Gove can seem to do no right, the Labour Party are not much better when it comes to education, with Tristram Hunt currently presiding over a policy vacuum in the area and making headlines (almost) not for any of his policies, but for crossing a picket line to deliver a lecture at UCL last week.


So why is the party so quiet on education? Part of the problem comes down to money. The leadership election and subsequent fallout distracted the party following the 2010 election, preventing a robust defence of their time in government and allowing exaggerations of the culpability of the Blair-Brown regimes for the impacts of the global banking crisis to become accepted as gospel. 

In an effort to distance himself from his former bosses, Ed Miliband attempted to portray Labour as a mature party that accepted and learnt from its mistakes and would become fiscally stringent, greatly restricting his possible policy space in the process. An example of this is the failure to capitalise on the mess that Gove made of the Building Schools for the Future programme, as it would involve a pledge of cash.

Commitments to cutting the deficit provide challenges for a party that is now, perhaps paradoxically, asking its shadow cabinet to achieve the traditional aim of tackling inequality, but in tandem with the coalition’s cuts. 

While some joy has been had in this aim through Miliband’s fight on the “cost of living crisis,” Hunt and his predecessor Stephen Twigg have so far failed to rise to that challenge, meaning that Labour have been unable to capitalise on the coalition’s pantomime villain.

This is exacerbated by the direction from which the party have to approach the issue from. Whilst the Conservative Party can come at the issue with an acceptance of the independent sector and of grammar schools, private schools represent the elephant in the room for Labour, who are at an uneasy truce that sees them stay well clear of them in any sense, stopping the party from tackling the divide that sees the privately educated 7% make up almost half of Oxbridge admissions.

Given that much of their core vote are from families that either attend or- perhaps as importantly- aspire to attend private schools, the Conservatives don’t have this problem and can unashamedly take a top-down approach to schooling. Gove has repeatedly stressed the need for state schools to become like private schools, and many of his ideas for the state sector, such as partnerships between state and private schools, are based around trying to make the benefits of private schools trickle down to state schools. 

Labour, on the other hand, look at the problem with an uneasy acceptance that- bar the odd murmuring over their charitable status- sees them largely ignore private schools and concentrate their approach on bolstering the worst performing schools; a hard task in an age of austerity. Expectations of a party working for equality also give them a higher burden upon which they will be judged than the Conservatives, perhaps further explaining their lack of ideas on the education issue.

Coming from a push-up rather than drag-up approach is difficult to do on the cheap and Miliband has made a mistake in his unconditional opposition to policies such as academies. Under MIliband, Blairite has become a dirty word as the party exhibits a swing away from the centre ground of the early part of the century, which in combination with a lack of money and a refusal to go anywhere near private schools (be it in an attacking or embracing sense) has left Labour education policy hamstrung.

Almost as if releasing an elastic band, Miliband has lurched back to the left and largely disowned what has become of Andrew Adonis’ academy programme, ultimately costing another of Blair’s former education ministers Twigg his shadow cabinet brief.

Adonis’ initial policy- one of New Labour’s braver and more successful achievements in education-has morphed into something far removed from the Labour Party, but is salvageable in spite of the wave of free schools to have swept the country. Academies originally opened as a targeted effort to improve the nation’s worst performing schools, but have become a method for Gove to unleash a motley crew of middle class parents, faith groups and Toby Young’s into the nation’s schools. 

Even if this is a sound policy, which is doubtful, it is hardly the same as the original equality-seeking policy that Gove has hijacked.

An effort to distance the party from anything to do with Blair meant that Labour have only just started to accept the method of free schools in any guise, with Hunt backtracking on previous criticisms to suggest that they could be a tool to boost the number of school places.

Education should be an area in which the Labour Party excels. For starters, Gove is one of the more unpopular ministers and open to attack should a coherent Labour position be found. Constantly at war with teachers, who the public tend to trust more than their politicians, Gove’s self-assurance borders on arrogance and his blasé attitudes to any criticism make him a ripe target for focused attack. Add to that the fact that state schools account for just over half of Oxbridge admissions, and that around a fifth of that state school total comes from the 164 grammar schools which educate 5% of the state school sector, and education should be firmly Labour territory. 

The election battle lines have been dug over the cost of living crisis and Miliband’s vision of responsible capitalism, but such rhetoric is undermined by current inequalities in education. For the economy to work for everyone in the way that Miliband’s responsible capitalism demands, equal access to education and the top jobs that come with it is paramount, particularly in an age in which youth unemployment is in danger of leaving millions of youngsters on the metaphorical scrapheap.

As the election build up gains steam, Hunt is playing catch up following his appointment late last year. Labour have so far drawn a blank in providing a cohesive programme in education; failing to reconcile their budget commitments, the greater burden upon which their core vote will judge their education policy, and their unease over private schools into anything more than a feeble attempt to capitalise on public distrust of Gove.

The party need to convey a clear, coherent message on education, rather than piecemeal offerings of teaching children “character,” otherwise they will lack any kind of big vision ahead of next year’s election.

By Damian Buxton

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