Educational idealism has gone topsy-turvy
Some years ago, Tony Blair famously said that he thought "ideology was dead" in British politics. If you want evidence to support this claim, you need look no further than the nature of the education debate between the Labour and Conservative parties today. This stripping away of ideology has, I would argue, left us in a rather peculiar position, with today's parties each taking stances on education that they would have once found repugnant. Unlike Blair, who thought it was a good thing just to focus on "what works", I suggest that the retreat from ideology is leading to an impoverishment and hollowing out of the contemporary debate. What we are left with is two parties lacking a principled vision of the goals of our education system and the means by which to achieve them.
Let's begin with the Tories. Education secretary Michael Gove could hardly be portrayed as the traditional Conservative, at least in terms of his policies. The nature of his rhetoric and the actions he has taken since 2010 could not be described using traditional Conservative adjectives. Gove's education policies are in many ways radical, progressive and most of all utopian. The word utopian is about as far removed from a description of traditional Conservative policy as you could get, but the fact is that Gove is a dreamer. He dreams of high-quality academic education for all, from the richest to the poorest. He refuses to accept any suggestion that poverty and social disadvantage are linked to academic ability, demonstrated by his removal of value-added measurements from league tables. He wants to give academic freedoms to academies and his cherished free schools, and most of all he wants teachers and schools to have the very highest academic aspirations for every child.
One might argue that, in some ways, Gove is the intellectual heir to Robert Owen and the Chartists, who in the 1830s established schools all over the country with the aim of bringing high-quality rigorous academic education to the poorest. It isn't a comfortable image of a Tory education secretary for the Left to swallow, but there is more than a grain of truth in the caricature. Indeed, only a fortnight ago Gove was praising the academic rigour found in the educational policies of the British Communist Party during the 1950s.
However, the trouble with Gove's policy agenda is that it brings with it all the weaknesses of utopian thought as well as the strengths. For all the government talk of rigour and overhauling the system, we are still very light on detail. Many of Gove's material changes are a long way off, and he may never finish his project if the Conservatives lose the next election. Furthermore, if the government really "means it" on education, where are the money and the resources to deliver such an agenda properly? Gove has massively slashed sixth-form spending per pupil, and every school I know is seriously feeling the pinch right now. The Clement Attlee government was both utopian and radical, but it found a way to deliver its vision even in the toughest of tough times after the Second World War. The Tories are strong on the rhetoric - and it is a progressive rhetoric in terms of bringing the benefits of academia to all - but they are light on the substance of delivery. Ironically, pragmatism and getting things done in the "real world" are the two traditional strengths of conservative ideology and policymaking. Both seem absent without leave under the current administration.
As for the Labour Party, its approach in recent years has been driven by that traditional Tory word, pragmatism, and a rejection of utopianism. Labour seems to have come to the belief that the disadvantaged simply "can't do" academia, and instead sees its path to a limited level of achievement lying down the vocational route. The expansion of this New Right policy under the Blair and Gordon Brown governments was quite extraordinary: the numbers of students taking vocational courses shot up from 15,000 in 2004 to 575,000 in 2010. In office, Labour incentivised schools to put more and more of our most disadvantaged children on to these often weak and unchallenging alternative courses, in the naive belief that at least these qualifications were "better than nothing" for these students.
At the recent party conference, Stephen Twigg showed us that Labour has failed to learn its lesson: a future Labour government would bring in yet another set of changes to vocational education, apparently to undo the failure of its last two attempts. The founders of the party would surely be spinning in their graves to see Labour succumbing to such depressing social determinism, not realising that its championing of dumbed-down education for the working classes actually widens the social mobility gap. It is also sad to see a party founded on progressive ideals failing to stand up for rigorous academic education for all, and failing to be more utopian in aspiration.
What we are left with is a Conservative Party chasing a dream of knowledge for all but lacking all sense of realism in actual delivery, and a Labour Party driven by the limited politics of pragmatism, unprepared to take a radical approach to boosting social mobility through education. I fail to see how this abandoning of traditional ideological beliefs, or what we used to call principles, is likely to benefit the education system in the UK.
Tom Finn-Kelcey is head of politics at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Faversham, Kent.