Thursday, 6 September 2007

Education: the "core" principles of each party are seriously split

So my Fabian Review has arrived, and it has not so far helped me make a journey any time soon into the warm bosom of the Labour Party. Education gets a thorough look at here, in particular by the Editorial Director of the Fabians, Tom Hampson. I won't summarise his entire article here, as it goes on for a while about how "there's barely a pie that doesn't have one of Ed Balls' fingers jammed firmly into it". This is meant to be good. However, it is an image I will struggle to dispel for a few hours yet.

What bothers me? Firstly, on Acadamies, "there simply must be a greater level of central government control in maintaining standards and ensuring fairness in provision in these schools. We must protect ourselves from bad news stories about academies using public money to teach creationism or being tied into sponsorship deals with large multinationals." (my italics).

There is SO MUCH WRONG HERE. Firstly, no pause for thought about how much added admin they load onto teachers every time centrally managed standards are mentioned. Secondly, there is a blatant lack of trust typical of all fantasy-centralizers. "If we don't watch them carefully, they'll be teaching creationism, the existence of Santa Claus, or that dock leaves are a cure for cancer. Luckily, we have forced them to fill out 120980 forms and that will stop them". The best way to avoid such horrors is bottom up - letting ordinarily concerned parents have some sway over the school. Thirdly "we must protect ourselves from bad news stories". Glad Tom has got his priorities right. Finally, the kneejerk student simpleminded equation of "multinationals" with "baby-eating fascists". What precisely do they think will go wrong if multinationals provide money to schools? A nation of McDonald addicts?

The other disquieting aspect of the Fabian policy stance, both here and in a subsequent article by Fiona Millar, is the out-and-out hatred of private schools. Private school fee paying parents put far more money into education, via their tax bills and school bills, than any other set of parents on the planet. The result is a set of often obnoxious, frequently overconfident but nearly always amazingly well educated kids. These kids doing well is not a bane on society. Fixing inequality is important - I recognise that, subject for another blog, and it is well discussed by Catalyst here. But denying the right of parents to spend money and time on their kids' education, in case, horror of horrors, those same kids should actually become high achievers, sends thousands of wrong messages out.

To be fair, John Denham is much more reasonable. Attacking the Lib Dem approach to tuition fees (my favourite policy; if you've spent a year with undergrads 15 years younger than you, you'd see why), he calls their position "intellectually untenable".

Finally, the closest I have found to a sane, thoughtful approach to education is of course that of David Willetts. His priorities are similar to a Labour politicians' - "We must break free from the belief that academic selection is any longer the way to transform the life chances of bright poor kids. This is a widespread belief but we just have to recognise that there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it." But he is not so scared of interesting solutions, and even praises the Girls' Day School Trust, where my wife teaches, and my first daughter has just finished a year of schooling.

So, of course,the Tories demote him. Where is a swing voter to look?

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