I’m sure I wasn’t the only person attending the Sunday Times Festival of Education two weeks ago who is both a teacher and a Labour activist. However, I was the only one tweeting obsessively about it and so here I am being given the opportunity to write a blog about it.
However, I’m not sure my experience was typical. I did do some of the obvious things for a Labour person at the event. I went to see Lord Adonis explain how academies are wonderful. I went to see Tim Brighouse explain how local authorities are wonderful. I skipped the opportunity to see Owen Jones because he once called me a “professional troll”, but I could have chosen to see him speak about how comprehensives are wonderful. That would probably have covered a fair spectrum of the sort of opinions one hears expressed forcefully within the Labour Party.
But none of that really gives a flavour of my experience. What thing did I actually do that most reflects both my experience as a teacher and my involvement in the Labour Party?
Well, I lectured the Tory-supporting political columnist of the Sun on Sunday on just how great my local Labour councillors are.
No, really I did.
But I guess this requires some background. Or at the very least I need an excuse to talk about myself. I went to the local comprehensive, a place considered less than exceptional. And, in my fourth and fifth year of secondary, I studied Latin in a class of 7. This is because back then that was the sort of thing a comprehensive might teach, at least to the brightest of their intake. And despite the cost of maintaining a small class it wasn’t something that would be negotiated away if the numbers choosing to do it were too low. While I doubt that studying Latin actually ever gave me any advantage in life, some other academically demanding qualifications I studied in small classes did. It was simply a given that an able child in a comprehensive should be given a lot of the same opportunities they might have had in a grammar school. That’s what comprehensives were about: to provide a high quality education to meet the needs and aspirations of all their pupils. That’s why Labour introduced them.
It was a bit of a shock decades later, as a teacher, to discover how that vision seemed to have disappeared. I saw schools trying to minimise setting even in maths. I saw bright kids forced into worthless vocational qualifications. I saw attempts to replace teaching with the playing of games. I saw anarchy in the classrooms. I saw low expectations of effort, achievement and behaviour defended as being all that can be expected from “kids like these”. As I’ve tried to make a difference to my students I’ve also been writing an anonymous blog about what went wrong
For that reason I have become known to a fair few people who don’t share my Labour Party politics but do share my aspiration that all children should have access to a high quality academic curriculum regardless of their background. This includes Toby Young, Sun journalist and founder of the West London Free School, who had encountered me on Twitter when we were both equally outraged to discover that studying and writing about Britain’s Got Talent had a place in the English curriculum.
I went to see him at the Festival of Education where he was speaking on “Free Schools – can they survive a change of government?”. Most of what he said was fair enough, there is little sign that Stephen Twigg would try to destroy successful schools but there are those in the party who would. However when he suggested that teaching unions were a dominant force in local Labour Parties I immediately thought “this is bilge” and tweeted to say so. Half an hour after the talk I got the following message:
And so I went over and explained what the Labour Party was like in its heartlands. Teachers rarely have the time to be that heavily involved, although that picture is sometimes disguised by counting everyone who works in education, including university lecturers as “teachers”. There are only a handful of us active in my local party and we are far from slavishly following the agenda of our unions. The most dominant figures in the party in places where we win even while out of office nationally are the party’s councillors. Teachers haven’t got the time to be councillors and couldn’t stand for the council if they work in the council’s schools. In my ward the Labour Party is represented by working class councillors with strong local connections, not middle class dilettantes looking for the chance to implement whatever they have read in the Guardian. Toby listened with interest and without dissent. (Although he did suggest I set up a free school.)
But, of course, this does raise the larger issue. The Labour Party’s education agenda is confused, and on a local level often does echo the voices of those who believe that aspiration, particularly on the part of working class parents, is a bad thing. Anyone watching to the recent parliamentary debate on Michael Gove’s O-level plans would have heard so many different and contradictory positions on education from the Labour benches that they would have wondered what we want and who we speak for as a party. My view is that we need to return to talk of standards not structures. We need to speak in a language understood by parents with the highest ambitions for their children rather than that of ideologues concerned with levelling-down. We need to distance ourselves from the education establishment, not talk of asking them to decide our policies for us. We cannot let the Tories claim to speak for those who want their kids to achieve, while we give the impression that we are only concerned as to whether that achievement is “fair” or not and whether we are providing enough ways to fail.
By the way, and I say this knowing that many who read this would find what I am saying unbearably right-wing and grounds to suggest I defect to the Tory Party, the first thing I did on getting home was fill in my ballot paper from the NUT to vote “Yes” to strike action over the issue of teachers’ pensions. The Tories are no friend to teachers. I would just prefer to see the Tories opposed from a position which clearly articulates why teachers are so important.