Education Sep 7 2010

Labour leadership candidates need to make a break from the past

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It was gratifying to read about Cllr Elaine Costigan, the Tory councillor who defected to Labour over her party’s education policies and the shoddy way in which her own government withdrew funding for new school buildings.

Maybe she could encourage a bit more frankness among her new colleagues. Following the leadership election from a distance has been interesting but at times dispiriting. If you want to know how to acquire a twibbon, organise a house meeting, or hear what the candidates had for lunch, the camp followers are expansive.

But don’t hold your breath if you want to know what they would do if elected. Some policies have been relatively well aired; the living wage, aspects of deficit reduction, the universal but unsurprising endorsement of community activism.

But education – and schools in particular – hasn’t just been the dog that didn’t bark. It has been a dog that has been locked in the cellar for three months. Why has a subject that is so close to the electorate’s heart and such a key element of the Coalition’s plans been so studiously avoided?

Personal choices made by individual politicians may be one reason. Even the usually garrulous Diane Abbot was lost for words in one interview when asked about her choice of a private school for her son.

A more likely reason is that all the candidates are in a bind. On the one hand they face Tony Blair hailing Tory policy and claiming anyone who deviates a millimetre from New Labour is a loser who doesn’t ‘get aspiration’.

On the other the central thrust of the Coalition’s ‘schools revolution’, built almost entirely on legislation passed by the last Labour government, is causing dismay among thousands of Labour and Lib Dem members and already proving divisive between parents in many communities.

Some individual issues have popped up. Ed Miliband has promised to look at the issue of academic selection, and talked about a role for local authorities. His brother has floated curriculum reforms and charitable status for private schools. Andy Burnham has been refreshingly robust in his defence of comprehensive education and Ed Balls has made waves attacking the Tories.

But even the Shadow Education Secretary has no big forward looking plan. You would need to be completely inept not to put Michael Gove through the shredder once he axed 700 new school buildings. And some of the decisions Balls made as Secretary of State undermine his assertion that the New Labour academies were only in deprived areas. One of his last acts in government was to approve a brand new academy, sponsored by an elite university, in one of the most affluent parts of my local area -a school that is now going to be funded by the Coalition at the expense of all the others, to the dismay of local parents.

The crude caricatures of some candidates as old Labour luddites have rightly been treated with contempt. Even with the absence of detail, most appear fully signed up to fairness, responsibility, social justice and an understanding of people’s desire to make a better life for themselves.

In education translating those values into fresh, distinct policies must mean resolving the contradiction between investment in high quality, non selective neighbourhood schools, with a role for local authorities, especially when it comes to managing admissions, or the promotion of potentially divisive independent state schools with freedoms and funding other schools don’t have.

Whoever gets the job, it will be a tough call, demand  deft political footwork and a willingness of offload  baggage from the past .Of all the candidates  Ed Miliband seems the most prepared to do this, even if the details of what he would actually do are hazy.

By this time next year, The Tories education policy will, I predict, be deeply unpopular. Gove has squandered massive political capital on what now turns out to be a few dozen schools. Next stage will be the spending cuts that affect the rest.

Labour won’t win again by offering a poor copy of the Tories half baked gimmicks. It needs a strong confident plan of its own. It’s just a shame we haven’t had a chance to debate it in this contest.

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