In a couplet of speeches in November, Shadow Education-Secretary Stephen Twigg outlined his share of the "radical and progressive vision for Britain" that is 'One Nation Labour'. One Nation Education will be "fundamental to addressing the divided country we face today"; a school system which gets back to the "first principles of comprehensive education". Key priorities for 2015 are to be tackling an "arc of underachievement" in northern and coastal towns and encouraging more collaboration to ensure that "no school is left behind". Labour is also passionate about improving leadership and putting in the resources to drive up standards across the board. All well and good.
But at the heart of Twigg's oratory was a depressing reaffirmation of Labour's support for neoliberal education policies and the choice agenda. Chastising Michael Gove for seeing academies as a panacea, Twigg has plumped instead for a 'whatever works for you' approach; stating that under Labour there will continue to be a "mixed economy" of academies, comprehensives and free schools. There was also confirmation that Labour would continue the Tory assault on democratic accountability in education, with Twigg casually observing that "hardly anyone thinks that local authorities should directly run schools".
Twigg's speeches signal the continuation of a 'quasi-market' approach to education, emphasising parental choice and competition between diverse and increasingly autonomous schools. The logic of the market approach is that competition can drive up standards; but by definition markets have winners and losers. There is now a bulging cannon of research to show that that the choice agenda exacerbates already existing educational inequalities. The OEDC's Programme for International Student Assessment for example, has found that the more differentiated a nations' education system, the larger the performance differences between students from more and less advantaged family backgrounds.
Middle class parents who are more au fait with the education system are at a huge advantage when making decisions about their children's education and are more likely to fight and win admissions appeals. Schools, whose survival rest on league table scores, will simultaneously do anything in their powers to attract more able (read middle class) pupils. Disadvantaged children meanwhile, whose parents are likely to be less 'adept' educational consumers, find themselves concentrated in the schools no-one else wants.
The UK already has an appalling record on educational inequality: Only three out of ten pupils from homes where parents are in unskilled occupations gain five or more A*-C GCSE's compared to seven out of ten pupils from homes where parents are in managerial occupations. In 2010, just 0.8% of the Oxbridge intake were free school meal eligible pupils. Twigg insists that Labour would counteract the inequality inherent to a market based education system by getting tough on covert selection and promoting collaboration, so that weaker schools are helped out by high achieving ones. Again though, he's plumped for the 'whatever works' approach, stating:
I do not believe in imposing one particular model of school collaboration from the centre. I have seen a number of models work effectively.
This is weak, incoherent policy making. You can't have an education system based simultaneously competition and collaboration. Rather than tinkering around with a system which breeds inequality, Labour should be brave enough to propose a programme of "radical and progressive" reform.
Thankfully, the model for reform already exists and has been working beautifully for 30 years:
By almost any measure, Finland has the best education system on earth. Its fully comprehensive system has no competition, no private schools, no league tables and no standardised tests. In other words it has nothing to choose between; education for the whole of society, where everyone has a stake in the system as a whole. It is a truly 'One Nation' system.
If 'One Nation Labour' is more than just rhetoric, education should be a key battleground. Instead of murmuring about comprehensive "principles" it should dare to dream of a truly just and egalitarian education system for the 21st century: A real live comprehensive education system.