Jon Brunskill is the Head of Year Two at an all-though school in London. He tweets @jon_brunskill and writes for the TES and Teach Primary.
One winter evening in 2013, a bright young man called Rory Gribbell was sat at his laptop, assessing his options for life after university. And Rory sure had options. His CV boasted fluency in French, a master’s degree in mathematics from the university of Durham, alongside international sports caps. Rory had his pick of the best graduate schemes on offer; he could make his fortune in the city, work for a top law firm or rise through the management consultancy ranks at whichever conglomerate took his fancy.
But he did not opt for prestige, mega-bucks or high-rise glory. You see, Rory was politically left-leaning, and was disturbed by the social injustices he saw around him, particularly in the education system. So he applied for Teach First, and shipped out to work in a disadvantaged school in Southampton.
Fast forward three years, and Gribbell has just been appointed as the new ‘Teacher in Residence’ at the Department for Education. He’s responsible for, amongst other things, writing Nick Gibb’s speeches and advising on policy. Angela Rayner, labour’s shadow Secretary of State for Education, responded by denouncing Gribbell as one of Gibb’s ‘right-wing mates’, called his appointment an abuse of public money and demanded a full investigation.
She went on to suggest that Gibb should instead appoint “a headteacher from a secondary state school in a deprived area and find out about the real problems facing schools.” This is an odd statement, given that Gribbell works in a secondary state school in a deprived area. And if you want to know about the real problems in schools, the classroom teacher, not SLT, is probably the best person to ask.
But all of this misses the bigger point. Given that just nine months ago, Gribbell was a card-carrying member of the Labour party, shouldn’t Rayner really be asking herself, “Just how did we lose this promising young teacher to the ideology of the Conservative party?” And he’s not the first to go. Last year self-professed leftie James Theobald wrote a controversial but powerful article in defence of Gove, and his attempt to reconcile this position with his left leaning sentiments.
Gribbell and Theobald, angry with the interminable inequality that permeates education and wider society, should be the vanguard of Labour’s educational vision. Their beliefs chime in unison with the party that fought for the working class of Britain, for the children who underachieve at school and whose life chances are quashed as a result.
So just how did the Tories’ educational message coax these bright lights from Labour’s educational plan? There are probably two reasons. First, although Gove did a horrible job at ‘bringing the profession along with him’ he was relentless in his crusade to provide every child with the sort of education that children from private schools receive. For some, it is elitist to provide all children with a diet of Shakespeare and Schopenhauer, of Chaucer and Tchaikovsky. But others, persuaded by Professor E D Hirsch, argue that it’s in fact elitist not to. The powerful knowledge provided by studying culturally significant figures and events of our past should not belong only to those who already have abundant social and cultural advantage.
The second reason is revealed when we ask just what Labour is offering in response. This was the exact question a friend put to me as we discussed politics and education over drinks a few weeks ago. I’d been outlining the recent reforms and changing landscape of education in England, and he interrupted me to ask, “So that’s what the government have been doing, but what’s Labour’s education policy?”
I paused for a good few seconds before realising that I had absolutely no idea. Later, I tweeted about the exchange, and received a reply from none other than the shadow Secretary of State for Education, Angela Rayner MP. She tweeted that Labour “had tons of good policy”, and that I should “email her” to get them. I found this disappointing. One of the key differences between Labour and the Conservatives at the moment is that, like them or not, everyone knows exactly what the Tories key vision is and what their plan is to achieve it. Balance the books; austerity. Take low earners out of taxation; raise minimum taxable allowance. Less dependence on government; welfare reform. Clear, snappy, authoritative.
Rayner’s response that educational policy can’t be done ‘in 140 characters’ shows either a lack of policy altogether, or policy that is too diffuse to be communicable in a concise and engaging message, which is more or less the job of a government minister. Rather than being impossible, it is exactly what successful politicians do. An axiomatic slogan, conveying an inspirational and rousing principle, that’s what wins votes, hearts and minds. I was disgusted with the ‘£350m a week to the EU, let’s spend it on the NHS instead’ banner, but you can fit it in a tweet and it certainly worked for the Leave campaign.
So somewhat dryly, I replied: “Are your policies only available upon request, by email?’ to which I Rayner responded with a link to yourbritain.org.uk, a website that asks you for your policy ideas. My jaw hit the ground. I sighed a deep sigh, shook my head, and reluctantly began writing this article.
Labour did not lose the debate on education because their ideas are wrong; that would be too generous. They don’t have any ideas to start with. To borrow the acerbic retort of theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli, Labour’s education policy is “not only not right, it’s not even wrong.” A blank sheet of paper can’t be wrong, and a “Well what do you think?” is not a policy position. If Labour are to inspire and enthuse the next Gribbell or Theobald, they have a lot of work to do.