Blaming Blair for Gove's Educational Policies

27/07/2016 12:48 | Updated 27 July 2016

The world had got used to blaming everything on Jeremy Corbyn and we seem to be coming full-circle to it again all being his fault, but for a few glorious days after the publication of the Chilcot Report everything stopped being Corbyn's fault and we could all blame Tony Blair. It is this band wagon I want to jump on, blaming Blair for Gove's destruction of our school curriculum. For it was Blair that created the environment in which Gove was able to launch his devastating attack on our school system and those who work in it.

In 1995 Tony Blair told the Labour Party conference that:

"Education is the best economic policy there is for a modern country"

. This neo-liberal recasting of education as economic policy is dangerous because it denies the intrinsic value of knowledge, reducing it to a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Education starts to be regarded from the things it leads to, like employability and salary, rather than for what it is. By 1998, after their election win a year earlier, New Labour had abolished curricula for the primary education, replacing it with targets for numeracy and literacy because as an economic policy education must be measured and therefore the measurable outputs become the focus of attention, anything that is not easily measurable becomes devalued. In this output driven environment students become the means of production, as do their teachers, all defined by their success, or otherwise, in attaining quantifiable outputs, defined as targets. A good student, a good teacher, a good educational institution are all measured by their effectiveness in meeting these targets - the targets themselves become not what we measure success against but themselves the measure of success.

Data is, of course valuable, without this data studies into gender and race inequalities, for example, would be impossible and there is a real danger that with the marketisation of Higher Education and the 'bonfire of red tape' justified on claims of budget constraints against a back-drop of an agenda of austerity that this data may not be available in the future. There is however a marked difference between data being collected to analyse behaviours and behaviours being driven by data.

Nevertheless, in the boom years of New Labour this policy appeared to work, GCSE and A level results rose year on year and Universities embraced the widening participation agenda, welcoming this burgeoning class of those who had embraced opportunities and 'got their heads down'. The reality was however that during the boom times the many did do well, but the few didn't. Education and economic inequalities grew, as the National Equality Panel reported in 2010:

"Britain is an unequal country, more so than many other industrial countries and more so than a generation ago."

These inequalities are both more pronounced and more hidden because of the period of sustained economic growth and because the statistics mask the enormity of the problem, for example by looking at statistics for Black and Minority Ethnic attainment the poor educational outcomes of Black students are masked by being aggregated with the outcomes of other minority ethnic groups especially students of far eastern descent.

This Blairite view of knowledge as a means to an end meant that New Labour focused on what knowledge can lead to, not what counts as knowledge. New Labour did not challenge the framework of the National Curriculum they inherited from the Conservatives and with no firm ideological stance about what counts as knowledge the move to allowing the private sector to influence how knowledge is defined through the creation of academies was almost inevitable.

The economic crash that followed the boom exposed the real lack of a coherent economic policy at the heart of New Labour and the claim that 'learning led to earning' was dismissed. The Department for Education's 2003 primary education strategy recognised the sector wide professional hostility to New Labour's education policies and the Cambridge Primary Review, which was published in 2010, provided an evidence-based report showing the damaging effect on education of persistent testing, narrow curricula and the micro-management of teachers. However, the publication of the report coincided with a change in government and its findings were largely ignored. The coalition government that succeeded New Labour was able to dismiss the widening participation agenda and bring in an agenda of austerity where funding for education was rationed.

The coalition government used the austerity agenda to justify the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance, justify the trebling of university tuition fees and criticise what they characterised as the 'grade inflation' which had shored up New Labour's education policies. Professor David Gillborn has described this as a period of 'interest divergence', which he contrasted with Derick Bell's model of 'interest convergence' which is central to Critical Race Theory:

"the situation can be characterised as 'interest-divergence', that is, a period where White powerholders perceived an advantage in even greater race inequity."

The economic downturn has created the environment where white people feel that their economic well-being is threatened and they are content to support policies that shore-up the historical structures of racial domination and this is worsened by an austerity agenda that impacts disproportionately on Black communities.

Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Education from 2010 - 2014, saw the fallacy of the claim that knowledge had only instrumental value and took the opportunity to give a Conservative answer to the question 'what counts as knowledge' which is now, sadly, entrenched in Britain's educational policies and structures.