Education – Blair’s poisonous legacy
Can you name the Shadow Secretary for Education? No? Not a single person I’ve asked can and some of those are teachers, some even staunch Labour supporters. How has it come to this?
The answer is to be found in Tom Bower’s excellent book on Tony Blair - Broken Vows. It’s brilliant. Forget Chilcot – this book reveals so much more about Blair and why Labour Party commentators feel as though they’re watching a slow-motion implosion. Prior to this, Polly Toynbee wrote a critique of the Blair years, The Verdict, its successes and failures. It was good book, a balanced summary. What it also revealed was that most of the failures were either Blair’s own idiosyncratic beliefs or his undoubted ability to persuade, pick and promote people who reflected those personal beliefs. Much of the rest was actually quite good.
This was certainly true of his now obviously flawed forays into Iraq but it is even more obvious in his legacy in education – basically a neo-liberal policy that opened the door for diversification of schools, faith schools, obsession with testing, their separation from state control, doomed pilots and projects (truancy, literacy, numeracy), ILAs, the introduction of fees in Higher education and the continued destruction of vocational learning. For these wondrously wrong-headed moves, we have Blair, and Blair only, to thank.
Remember the painfully shy Estelle Morris, who at least had the good grace to resign when she could no longer take Blair’s diktats? Remember Charles Clark with his white heat of technology initiative – eh… whiteboards? Remember Ruth Kelly and ILAs (Individual Learning Accounts) – which collapsed under the weight of massive fraud? Brown hated the idea and it became a Blair project that existed only to stymie his rival. Remember David Bell who warned Blair about the divisive and odd idea that faith schools reflected diversity, when all they did was divide? Truancy projects that failed miserably. Literacy and numeracy initiatives where huge sums were spent with little or no impact. The mantra was ‘choice’. If only we gave everyone more choice, which simply opened up a market for education where the sharp elbows of the middle classes went to work, as they always do, with a ferocious elbowing aside of the people who needed help the most. This has, in the end, led to from free schools to academies and now t the resurrection of the Grammar School nonsense. None of this would have happened without Blair.
More recently we had Tristram Hunt, a hapless a shadow Education Secretary, who simply reflected what Blair had initiated and went along with what Gove had completed. Ignoring the working class needs on vocational education, despite the fact that the majority of kids do not go to University, he was clueless. Two elections lost and a working class vote that has been betrayed by ignoring their plight.
How did we come to a position where a Conservative government has had more progressive policies on vocational learning than Labour, namely, the apprenticeship levy? Labour stood by while progressive policies, in Conservative manifestos trumped them.
The Blair legacy was an army of technocrats who confused student politics and bookish views with the real world. They were hired, groomed and selected, with a tremendous sense of entitlement. This went on and on with the idea that having NGO experience on your CV meant you had been in the middle of the class war. No – it largely meant a comfortable sojourn and almost no contact with typical, Labour constituents. I saw this in my own constituency, where a good, local MP, with a healthy majority retired, only to be replaced with two candidates who were ‘selected’ not so much for the abilities, as their CV. They lost – badly. This Blair legacy has lost Labour the last two elections. The empirical evidence is now clear. First, in Scotland, Labour has already imploded, as other, fresher politicians land-grabbed. Even the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party demands more respect. Second, Labour lost the last two elections, which clearly shows a long-term rot. Third, Brexit proved that Labour had now officially disengaged from their traditional voters and working class concerns. This all adds up to an existential threat, as Labour fractures down the middle, slogging it out over footnote issues such as anti-semitism and rule-book changes, while the world around them ignores their petty domestic disputes.
I’m no Corbyn fan and O’Connel is a liability but Corbyn’s education policies are quite good, with a core idea being a NES (National Education Service) like the NHS. What I’d like to see is a move towards all schools being secular, drop charitable status for fee-paying schools, force HE to cut costs rather than raising fees and a massive push on apprenticeships.
Her name, by the way, is Angela Raynor, a more invisible and lightweight Shadow Education Secretary is hard to imagine.