Fraser Nelson had some fun today implying–on the basis of confrontational interview between Andrew Neill and Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT)–that there is almost no one of the left who has faith that poor children can achieve academically. This isn’t the case, but whilst it might be easy to write off Nelson’s contribution as a typical wind-up, there are some things that he is, frustratingly, correct about.
So, in alternative order:
Fraser Nelson is wrong … that Christine Blower is influential. Nelson cites Blower’s salary as evidence of her influence, but the real truth is Christine lacks influence both inside and beyond her union. Perhaps the starkest demonstration of this was last March when, against her advice, the NUT Executive sanctioned a one-day, London-only strike, an action that was predictably flat and entirely unremarked upon by anyone other than the poor sods who lost a day’s pay for it and the children who lost a day’s education because of it. The NUT is run by the political factions, headed by people you’ve never heard of, who hold meetings they don’t minute, to decide on strategies even they have no faith can achieve their outcomes. The only teacher trade union general secretaries who have made substantial impact since the advent of this government are Mary Bousted and Russell Hobby, mostly because they are capable negotiators who have clear values and are not ideologically opposed to necessary compromises.
Fraser Nelson is right … there is a depressing lack of ambition amongst too many people on the left in education on behalf of the poorest children. There is a disposition–not full theorised enough to be an ideology– that I encounter a lot amongst activist lefties (admittedly, many of them outside of the Labour Party, which is something of a relief) that working class children who achieve in the present education system must have cheated somehow. The best example I can offer is around the success of Mossbourne Academy, which I frequently cite to people as, hands-down, the best school in England and one with a huge percentage of disadvantaged children. Every time I say this, someone will say, “Aha, but you do know their real secret, don’t you? They cheat their intake!” Interestingly, few attempts are made to substantiate this accusation, and the precise nature of the cheating has been different every single time I’ve been told it. Which leads me to conclude that, possibly, they’re all hearsay. What seems to be the case is that Mossbourne, and other successful comprehensives, must not be allowed to be successful without having some illicit advantage, because if it is possible to succeed in the current system, then the other things some people on the left would like educational underachievement to be a result of (for example, one or more of: the continuing existence of grammar schools, Ofsted inspections, SATs, didactic teaching, international capitalism) may have to be re-evaluated.
Fraser Nelson is wrong … that Labour is not willing to challenge the culture of low expectations. As I say, most of those with ingrained low expectations are outside Labour, as Blower is (she once stood as a candidate for a Trotskyite alliance for the London Assembly). Moreover, there very obviously are those in Labour who are willing to stand up and demand an outstanding education for all students: to give only a few examples, amongst MPs there is Barry Sheerman and Diane Abbott, amongst peers, Andrew Adonis and Jim Knight, amongst Labour teacher-bloggers, Tom Sherrington and Tessa Mathews. In Haringey, where I live, the Labour leader of the Council Claire Kober responded to the forced academisation of four poor performing primaries in the borough with a commission of top quality educationalists, their explicit remit from the outset to devise new and better ways of the local authority co-ordinating local schools, to deliver an outstanding education to all our children.
Fraser Nelson is right … that Neil Kinnock is awesome. This probably doesn’t need repeating, but it turned out he was wrong about more things than he was right about, so I needed an extra one and no one with an interest in Labour forming the next government should pass up an opportunity to praise Kinnock. Without him, there would now be no Labour Party: it was he who laboured to not merely hold together Labour after the catastrophe of 1983 but to build something stronger, to jettison deeply unpopular policies that put Labour beyond the pale for sensible voters, including many amongst the working class. His speech at the 1985 Labour Party Conference is amongst the most important ever given by any Labour leader, calling out the Hard Left as the charlatans they are and setting Labour on the path to Blair and 1997. Also, he used to be a teacher.
Fraser Nelson is wrong … that the measure of everyone being in receipt of a great education is Oxbridge entries. This is the hardest part of this to write: it would be easy to simply side with Nelson (and Gove) that low expectations have robbed bright but poor children of their absolute birthright to sit at dinner in Balliol College hall just like the proud products of Eton, Winchester and Harrow. And, in part, I do believe that: it never ceases to sadden and then anger me when my brightest students, aware of their own intellect and aspirations, respond to my question about whether they’ve considered Oxbridge with, “Oh, I don’t think I’m clever enough for that.” My ad hoc evangelism in response to this has, I hoped, moved a few of them to consider again.
But, crucially, it isn’t whether they go there that I think is the test of success, but whether they believe it is a perfectly valid choice for them to do so. Education is, fundamentally, about empowerment: every student should be empowered with the knowledge and confidence necessary to allow them to choose their own destinies. If that means my brightest student decides on bricklaying over Christ Church, alive to the implications of that choice and able to make it because their education has given them the qualifications and the qualities to pursue both, then that is as valid an outcome of education as a Double First in Classics.
So, whilst Nelson is welcome to call out those on the Far Left about the gap between their rhetoric and action, he cannot be allowed to tar all Labour members with that brush. But more than that, he should not be allowed to peddle his own form of low expectations by presuming students from working class backgrounds, given an outstanding education, aren’t perfectly capable of making choices about their own futures.