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Michael Gove is redefining what Left and Right mean in education policy

By Harry Phibbs
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The terms of the debate on education policy used to be presented as Labour championing equal opportunity while the Conservatives were defenders of priviledge for the minority. Labour attacked the gramar schools on the grounds that the children who failed the 11-plus were "written off." Labour also attacked independent schools - even proposing to outlaw them in their 1983 election manifesto.

Given that Labour no longer propose to ban independent schools how do they now believe that   equality be achieved? How can the huge gap in standards be reduced between the small minority of pupils who go to such schools and the vast majority who go to state schools. The Labour Government's answer from 1997-2010 was to increase spending on education but that didn't close the gap.

This leaves the Education Secretary Michael Gove as the champion of equality. He is not seeking to achieve this by levvelling down, by dragging down the independent schools, but by levelling up. The result has been that the Labour Party are defending a status quo - a system which gives the children of the rich a huge advantage in their career prospects.

In his speech to the Social Market Foundation yesterday Mr Gove said:

The truth is that the EBacc did not inspire opposition because it cast a shadow over creativity. It inspired opposition because it revealed how poorly served so many state students were.

The comforting story we had been told about rapid and relentless educational improvement - based on GCSE results - was shown up as a far more complex narrative of inequality and untapped potential.

But instead of using this information to demand that poorer children at last enjoy the education expected by the privileged, far too many on the left attacked the very idea that poor children might aspire to such an entitlement.

Ed Balls, Stephen Twigg and Ed Miliband – Oxford PPEists all – have been united in opposition to the EBacc.

Even though it has exposed inequality in our society much more starkly than any Gini coefficient calculation could.

At the moment just 16% of students in the state sector secure the EBacc. Only 23% are even entered for it. More than three-quarters of state school students have been denied access to the qualifications which will empower them to choose their own path.

But for Labour that’s not only no cause for concern – it’s a truth which should be suppressed.

The current leadership of the Labour Party react to the idea that working class students might study the subjects they studied with the same horror that the Earl of Grantham showed when a chauffeur wanted to marry his daughter.

Labour, under their current leadership, want to be the Downton Abbey party when it comes to educational opportunity. They think working class children should stick to the station in life they were born into – they should be happy to be recognised for being good with their hands and not presume to get above themselves.

Some in the Labour Party do feel uneasy about this. One Labour blogger Andrew Old asks:

Is this the agenda Labour is to go to the general election with? Will Stephen Twigg (PPE, Balliol College, Oxford), Ed Milliband (PPE, Corpus Christi College, Oxford) or Ed Balls (PPE, Keble College, Oxford) actually be putting it to the public that an academic education is bad for the economy and unsuitable for the working class? 

Will they actually be declaring that Michael Gove is simply too ambitious in his plans for the electorate’s children? Will the dividing lines be that some kids (presumably not their kids) are simply not academic and should know their place? Will Labour’s position be “non-academic” kids need to be spared from the rigours of tough exams while Michael Gove’s position is that “non-academic kids” should be given the opportunity to become academic? Will they expect working class voters to agree with this?

For some time I've felt that using the labels left and right is unhelpful - especially for Conservatives. Are the education reforms being brought in by Mr Gove "right wing"? They are certainly about restoring traditional rigour, promoting excellence, using choice and competition. Yet they are also about equality of opportunity - a cause the Labour Party used to care about.


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