John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.
Angela Rayner’s short and punchy speech to Labour’s conference added to their list of public statements on education. No more Ofsted, tuition fees, or tax breaks to private schools. Sure Start Plus for all, “comprehensive universities”, and a price cap on school uniforms. Jeremy Corbyn had previously announced an end to all tests, and Rayner herself had said that Labour would “bring all publicly funded schools back into the mainstream public sector with a common rulebook and under local democratic control.” As the private sector would be either “integrated” with state schools, or subject to outright confiscation, the “common rulebook” would include them too.
We need hardly ask who would write the rulebook – “local democratic control” means Momentum and totalitarianism. As Rayner had stated that she would not tolerate a system in which children could fail and be excluded, it would remove the disciplinary procedures that have brought success to Michaela, West London Free School, their precursor, Mossbourne, and Great Yarmouth Charter Academy. From 1997 onwards, Labour – despite David Blunkett’s personal commitment to discipline – put constraints on schools that obliged them to tolerate disruption in the name of inclusion. This would return. Successful schools would have to toe the line or be subject to the attentions of the local democratic controllers. They could be destroyed without shutting them down, much as Momentum tried to silence Tom Watson by abolishing his position rather than removing him personally.
I said in my previous column that party conferences had revealed deep divisions over the purposes of education, and Rayner’s commitment to replace social mobility with social justice sums these up. The schools I’ve listed are giving pupils access to social mobility by enabling them to compete on more equal terms with the recipients of privilege. This does not imply a level playing field – they have larger classes and fewer facilities, so have to work harder – but it does give them a chance. Social justice would demand as much, but what Labour means by social justice is equality rather than opportunity. The schism is as old as civilisation itself, and summed up by the Egyptian Scribe’s Letter to his Son. Work hard at school, and you’ll have an easy life. Don’t do so and you will suffer.
There is a grain of truth in it, and it is easy to understand Rayner’s appeal to Labour supporters. She was rescued from the bottom of the heap by Sure Start, Labour, and Tony Benn, and now wants to rescue others. So do we all. The lower depths described by Lynsey Handley (Respectable, an account of a Birmingham childhood), Jean-Paul Flintoff (Comp, drug dealing and violence at Holland Park), and in Katharine Birbalsingh’s original, uncensored internet postings on violence in South London, are a denial of human potential and a recipe for social disintegration.
The problem is that Rayner’s package is more straitjacket than lifeboat. Checks on phonics and multiplication tables identify problems at an early stage, so that they can be dealt with. When I started teaching under Wilson/Callaghan in the 1970s, we had children in secondary school who could not read at all, and had to start from scratch. This is now rare, largely due to tests that prevent the issue from being covered up.
A similar situation exists with basic skills in maths. I told our joint session with the National Education Union that I should not have to teach multiplication tables, sometimes even twos, to teenagers, and no-one contested it. So why not check at eight, and so reduce or eliminate the problem? Without literacy and number skills, pupils can’t do most of their schoolwork. Do Rayner and her colleagues really think they are helping children by leaving them in ignorance? Or by abolishing the inspection service that gives parents some chance of seeing schools as they are, and not as the authorities want them to be seen?
No-one involved in education thinks that the Conservatives performance has been flawless. I take Clare Wagner’s concerns about the restriction on sixth form subjects very seriously, and am equally concerned about the continuing scandals in some academy chains, which are as bad as anything in Labour’s corrupt local authorities. We need a way forward that addresses these issues while maintaining the important principle of returning schools to their proper purpose, which is the promotion of teaching and learning in the context of good personal development, summed up in Michaela’s “Work hard, be kind.” Rayner’s combination of political authoritarianism and slash-and-burn anarchy will not provide it.