John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is a Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.
Shortly after our success in the 2015 election, I said in a constituency meeting that I was worried about Jeremy Corbyn. Canvassing in our safe seat had shown up a degree of opposition to our policies that had surprised me, particularly by its vehemence. No-one agreed. I am now worried about Angela Rayner, the Shadow Education Secretary. Corbyn, she tells us, handed her a blank sheet of paper and invited her to design a national education service. The blank sheet reflects Corbyn’s knowledge of education, but is a clever piece of rebranding, no doubt inspired by his adviser Seumas Milne, who understands education well enough to have ensured that his children attended a grammar school.
Rayner’s conference speech was one of the worst I’ve ever heard, a tissue of exaggerations, untruths – she said that Conservatives had closed all of our libraries – and very poor jokes. There was not one new idea, and the message was that the last Labour Government had got it right. Every single proposal involved a return to 2005, the year in which I joined the Conservative Party in response to what I saw as a system based on fraud, incompetence and waste, including the destruction of a good and improving system of school inspection. But the speech didn’t matter. There was a standing ovation before and after it. Rayner was “one of us”.
The question Conservatives need to ask is how she could get away with it. The reality of local authority control of schools was not democratic, but rule by officers and party hacks. The reality of the “inclusion” she advocated was oppression of teachers by making them tolerate impossible behaviour, and of hard-working pupils by exposure to bullying.
The Guardian writer and Corbynite Lynsey Hanley gives this description without any sense of irony
“Let’s imagine a day in Year 9…in a computer studies class. At eleven in the morning, the teacher would be crying and her tallest pupil would be singing pop songs over the top of her quiet entreaties for him to stop. The girls would be comparing brands of hair mousse, bought from Superdrug on the way home the previous afternoon, and the boys would be going ‘Arr no miss! OH NO! AH MAN! Arr no miss! Look, miss, he’s torn me cowt. Arr God! Me pen’s run ewt! I cor write enythin’ dewn. Ah fookin’ ‘ell man!” (Respectable, 2016, p.90)
This is not education. By her own account, Rayner’s experience of school was not much different, and Katharine Birbalsingh’s original, uncensored, accounts of her early years in teaching were at times worse. The contrast with the calm and happy working atmosphere at Michaela could not be greater, but it is unquestionably a free school, and Rayner’s speech included a promise to close all of them down.
It is tempting to suggest she might visit it before making her decision, but that probably wouldn’t matter either – I say “probably” because I don’t believe Rayner is wilfully dishonest, and the pupils might change her mind. The real problem is that the machine has taken over, and the machine is run by Corbyn, McDonnell and Milne, who are so opposed to the existing world order that Hamas, the little red book and even North Korea are acceptable alternatives. Rayner appeals to the young voters who see themselves, with some justification, as being exploited for the benefit of older and richer ones. In fact, she doesn’t just appeal to them, she is one of them.