Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
I was really disturbed to read a report yesterday in The Times which suggested that Conservative MPs have been told to drop the Prime Minister’s ‘burning injustices’ credo from leaflets – and not to mention it during campaigning.
This is all the more astonishing given that she made combatting ‘burning injustices’ her personal mission on the steps of Downing Street when she first arrived. Her speech captured the mood of the nation, and inspired many. It was also a key part of her launch speech for the last Tory leadership election, and the reason I decided to support her in that contest.
At the time, in a telephone conversation with Nick Timothy, it was made clear to me that workers’ conservatism would be at the front and centre of the new leader’s policies. May built on her Downing Street speech in her Party Conference speech of 2016, recognising that the Conservatives were the real Workers’ Party.
If the Times is correct, it seems that the focus group of Barwellian bean counters are using the fog of Brexit to move away from this agenda. The argument goes like this: Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is streets ahead on social justice in the polls, so Conservatives should only focus on our strengths.
This view is flawed for a number of reasons. First: there are great social injustices that need to be addressed, whether in life chances, education, social housing, the cost of living or regional inequalities. Second: that we are apparently behind in the polls shouldn’t invalidate efforts to do all we can to make social justice our territory. Remember – Tony Blair partly won electoral success in 1997 by taking away the Tory mantle of us being the party of law and order (tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime).
Third: I doubt that Conservatives will ever win a healthy majority again unless we are seen as much the party of social justice and social capital ,as much as the party of economics and economic capital. It is unlikely that the working class votes we have been winning – because of Brexit – will stay with us once we leave the EU, unless we show these new Tory voters that we are really on their side.
Fourth: if the Prime Minister really does move away from her central mission, what is left other than Brexit?
I just hope that this report is inaccurate and a silly season story. If it is not, there will be significant disappointment from worker Conservatives up and down the country, alongside many Tory MPs from the Conservative social justice caucus in Parliament.
I always enjoy John Bald’s Conservative Home articles on education. There is much I can learn from him.
However, his latest piece for this site hurled a few red herrings at the recent report by the Education Select Committee (which I chair) entitled The Forgotten Children, the Scandal of Exclusions and Alternative Provision.
It is probably best to begin by correcting one inaccuracy: the so-called ‘extreme’ Becky Francis is not an adviser to the committee, and did not have any input into the writing of the report. I understand she was an adviser to some previous education inquiries, but this stopped in 2016 (I was elected Chair in July 2017).
But if that was one smaller herring of the mild red variety, Mr Bald fished out a much larger on – by setting out a number of cases in which school exclusion had been necessary, and using this as a basis in which to try and undermine our whole report.
Nowhere did we say there should be no exclusions. I have no doubt that, in certain cases, exclusions will be necessary. We make that clear in the report.
Neither did it state there should be no zero tolerance behaviour policies, apart from highlighting evidence presented to our committee, suggesting that these kind of policies follow international treaty norms. We urged the Government in their review of exclusions (to be carried out by the respected former Minister, Ed Timpson), to look at trends in different kind of schools.
Bald set out some moving stories of why some pupils were excluded, so let me offer a couple in return: the young girl I met whose mother had died, had a difficult family background and due to some bad behaviours was put in a cupboard-sized isolation room for days upon end. She was only rescued because she came into contact with a charity that looks after children with difficulties, and she is now a flourishing individual in her own right. Or even the extreme example of St Olaves, which was excluding pupils because of exam results, turning some pupils to the brink of suicide.
What our report did do, however, was to highlight the fact that 40 children are being permanently excluded every day. A further 922 children with special educational needs face fixed or permanent exclusions each day. Meanwhile, other children are being ‘off-rolled’ – that’s to say, informally taken off school registers, and subsequently staying out of the state school system. Ofsted are currently looking at around 300 schools for ‘off rolling’.
When you have this many students being excluded, with a postcode lottery of Alternative Provision, there clearly is a problem. This has enormous impact on the pupils concerned, and a huge social and economic cost to society.
What the Select Committee was arguing for is transparency: to ensure that schools publish termly exclusion numbers, and accountability – in that schools remain at least part accountable for the results and outcomes of excluded pupils.
The committee also recommended that all teacher trainees spend some time in Alternative Provision, and that mainstream schools buddy up with AP schools in order to help with collaboration and understanding. And, yes, we did suggest a Bill of Rights to ensure fairness and support for parents and excluded children.
I look forward to reading Bald’s future articles on education. He is a distinguished educationalist, but if he is to be a fisherman too, could he please throw the red herrings back in the sea.