It is time to delve into Labour's real history

28th September 2012 at 01:00
The party has made great strides in education, but a harmful myth still abounds, argues John Blake as the Labour conference looms

For a progressive party, Labour can be a remarkably traditional beast. In particular, the Labour movement's attachment to its own history is deep and enduring: witness the Durham Miners' Gala or David Miliband choosing to give the Keir Hardie Memorial Lecture as a high point in his leadership campaign.

References to working class movements of the past pepper the speeches at Labour Party and trade union meetings. There is, of course, a great deal in Labour's history to be proud of: to throw out a quick example, Clement Attlee's 1945 government was responsible for the creation of the NHS and Nato, two enduring institutions that in very different ways have had an abiding impact on post-war Britain. It can be well worth it to delve into Labour's past to help shape its future.

But what happens when the history that becomes accepted currency is wrong? And when that history is about an issue dear to the hearts of almost every Labour Party member? This seems to be the fate of Labour and education, where a complex and diverse story has been winnowed into a simple myth, dissent from which is treated by parts of the movement as heresy.

This has profound implications for the shape of the party's policy debates over education - and, as the coalition seems to be stumbling to defeat in 2015, the shape of government policy in the second half of this decade.

Firstly, then, what is the myth? Like the ancient stories of Olympian gods, it sounds a little different with each teller, but fundamentally it is that Labour was once the party of monopoly provision of education by the state, delivered solely in comprehensive schools, managed locally with little intervention from central government and certainly not from Ofsted. Out of office in the Thatcher years, Labour could do little to resist the destruction of this system, but the party's own policy harmony was not shattered until the market-orientated reforms of Tony Blair, an illegitimate interloper into the Labour story who was able to interfere only by capturing the party at its weakest moment. Now that Blair has gone, the party is expected to revert to its old, "true" education policy - and those who stand in the way of that reversion are as alien to Labour's traditions as Blair.

Labour has certainly always been passionately interested in education and determined to ensure that social class is no bar to educational success. Few in Labour would disagree with former prime minister James Callaghan that "the endowment of our children is the most precious of the natural resources of this community". But the manner and method of ensuring that endowment has always been up for discussion.

Callaghan's remark was part of a speech given because Labour members in the country and the Cabinet Room were becoming concerned by the quality of education that local authorities were providing for Britain's children. Callaghan endorsed the need for a "core" curriculum, called for greater involvement from employers in setting standards and made the test of successful Labour education policy that schools "equip children to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive, place in society" and "fit them to do a job of work. Not one or the other but both."

Ideas into action

Labour's failure to win the 1979 general election robbed Callaghan of the chance to turn his ideas into action, but the national curriculum and its accompanying strong focus on external validation of schools was a distorted version of the world Callaghan wished to build. It was marred by an under-funding of inner-city schools that Conservatives did not represent, a failure to deliver an examinations system that gave genuine parity to the academic and vocational aspects of education and other errors. But it is simply untrue to maintain that it is not "Labour-like" to believe that Ofsted and league tables have a role in delivering educational improvement for all students.

Tony Blair took Callaghan's blueprint and made it the centrepiece of his domestic agenda. And despite undoubted problems, where New Labour took the most decisive action, it saw incredible success: the London borough of Hackney's secondary schools, built to serve one of the poorest communities in Britain, were in a deleterious state when Blair took office; poor outcomes, low aspirations, less hope. The Labour government forcibly outsourced the education function of the local authority and introduced multiple academies. Ten years later, Hackney's school system serves the same community and is one of the most successful in the country; this was not a market-orientated intervention, but a child-focused one. The borough also has a directly elected Labour mayor, two Labour MPs and a Labour majority on the council. Hackney, with its academies and outsourced education function, is as legitimate a part of the Labour story as Ellen Wilkinson raising the school leaving age or Anthony Crosland's crusades against the grammars.

With the prospect of taking office in 2015 in a terrible economic situation bequeathed by George Osborne, Labour cannot afford to close off policy options simply because some of the movement finds them uncongenial. It is unfair as well as illiberal to insist that only certain aspects of the Labour education story are "real Labour". When building a modern education policy on Labour values, it must be recognised that those values encompass much more than the age of monopoly local authority control. Labour must embrace the diversity of its education successes before it will be truly able to endow our children's futures.

John Blake teaches history at a comprehensive school in London and is the founder of Labour Teachers

It must be recognised that Labour values encompass much more than the age of monopoly local authority control.

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