At the pub last weekend I improvised a short history of the Labour movement for my non-political friend, Rob (he was on the edge of his seat, obviously), as a way of explaining why I think Labour may struggle with Jeremy Corbyn as leader. "We've been here before," I said. "It took 20 years for them to learn from what happened in the 80s".
Reading the papers over the last few weeks, though, has made one thing clear: #Corbynmania is pretty resilient to lectures from those who don't agree with it, no matter who they are, so it’s probably a good idea to think carefully about what it means now that Corbyn has been elected as leader and, specifically, what it might mean for schools and those working in them.
The education policies Corbyn has announced so far read a bit like a wish-list for those put off by the pro-accountability, pro-choice agenda that's dominated the last 15 to 20 years. For starters, he’s firmly against free schools and academies, and wants to bring them back “into the local authority orbit”.
He’s said that we're moving “to a situation where the majority of schools could be trusts, academies and independent by the next election and MPs have to lobby ministers ... about everything.”
The whole ‘middle tier' debate has been bubbling away for a while now, especially in light of high-profile problems at some academies and free schools. The government has responded with regional schools commissioners, but there's still plenty of support for the idea of councils overseeing schools. I don’t think the idea of local authorities being part of ‘the blob’ has quite taken hold except in the pages of The Spectator.
As to how this could actually happen, though, I'm not yet sure. It would effectively mean a re-nationalisation of education: private individuals and sponsors would have their institutions taken away from them and put in the hands of local government.
There are some pretty big beasts behind some of the chains, and I imagine wrestling control back would be tough. And is there anything to learn from those chains who are doing remarkable things in really challenging circumstances? Saying they should go feels like a far cry from Blair’s ‘whatever works’ approach.
Corbyn has also come out against league tables: “Choice and diversity have led to much higher stress levels for parents because there is always going to be someone at the top and the bottom of the tables.”
Undoubtedly, more focus on accountability measures will put pressure on schools and can’t exactly be pleasant for those doing badly. But we live in a culture where information and data is increasingly open, and it doesn't seem likely that this process will slow. Parents are becoming more demanding. They use the information that's out there to choose a school, and they want to know how the school's doing. I know if I had children, I'd do the same.
For some people, the idea of ‘choice’ in public services amounts to a commercialisation of the common good, and turns citizens into consumers. And we are seeing schools marketing themselves more, thinking of themselves as much as brands as public institutions. Corbyn also argues that this model of choice leads to different communities, such as those of different faiths, attending different schools. He says that “bringing them together ... is much more likely to bring about a cohesive, coherent society in the future.”
I think that will play well with his younger supporters, but I wonder how it will be received by religious communities. How would they respond to being told that having a Christian or Muslim school is divisive. I can see the rationale, I’m just not sure it’s an easy win.
What’s really interesting about these policies is that they are, in a way, similar to New Labour’s and the current government’s policies.
Bear with me, I’m not just trolling. All three focus on the structural context within which schools operate, rather than what actually happens in schools. There isn’t anything here about teaching, basically. I think the education debate is gradually moving towards a focus on quality of teaching and using evidence-based practice in schools as means of improving the system, rather than external accountability and academisation. We’ll have to wait and see what the new shadow education secretary, Lucy Powell, has to say about that.
Finally, I think we need to remember why many of the policies which Corbyn is against were introduced in the first place. They came from a perception that education in the early 1990s was not in a good place. That’s why there was a greater focus on inspection. That’s why there was a shake-up in who runs schools. That’s why there was emphasis from successive governments on greater accountability.
Is it actually ‘radical’ to argue for policies that seem to want to turn the clock back 30 years? To me, some of this feels nostalgic, even quite … conservative. And yes, I am aware that I sound exactly like Liz Kendall.
There’s no doubt that something meaningful has happened with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. It's important to look at why there has been such engagement with his campaign and why it was successful. I just wonder, on education at least, where we go from here.