Towards a Blue Labour Agenda on Schools Part 1July 13, 2014
Last weekend I went to the Blue Labour Midlands Seminar for a day of discussion about “Blue Labour” ideas. Blue Labour is the movement that developed out of the ideas of Lord Glasman. Despite Glasman being an academic and and member of the House of Lords, the core Blue Labour ideas, roughly speaking, revolve around the idea of a Labour party rooted in working class communities (including faith communities) rather than in Westminster and the chattering classes. I intend to blog about what ideas were discussed that were most relevant to education debate in the next day or two. However, I remembered that I had already written about this for the now defunct “Old Politics” blog in a response to another blogpost that also is no longer available.
I have to give a few warnings first. I wrote this in July 2011 for a political blogger. As such, it is more political than my usual comments and for an audience not familiar with my arguments. Also, I clearly was more prone to jargon then than I am now, and I apologise in advance for the phrase “managerialist quasi-market” which sounds like the sort of thing that I’d criticise the BERA social justice blog for using . At least one link won’t work (but I haven’t edited it out). If you are more interested in the education discussion than the politics, please don’t be put off by the first few paragraphs, it does become easier to read.
So far, schools are an area where Blue Labour appears to have been least able to make a contribution to policy. Blue Labour is sceptical of the possibility that the paternalistic middle classes can genuinely meet the interests of the working class through public spending on the part of the state. The British state school system is a public service which is dominated by middle class interests, beliefs and concerns, yet decisive in its power over the interests and aspirations of the working class in a way that is the antithesis of Blue Labour thinking. However, in this case, Blue Labour cannot even appeal for rescue to a pre-welfare state tradition of education, because while there may be positive things to be said about the contribution of church schools, workers education societies and other forms of education that existed independently of the state in the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century, nobody can suggest that these bodies were not either equally paternalistic or equally inadequate at empowering the mass of the working class.
That said, a scepticism about the existence of a state education system is not a credible position for Blue Labour thinkers either. The middle classes desire education for themselves and are willing to pay for it. The withdrawal of the state from the education system would not create comprehensive community-run civil institutions, it would create a free market in which the lion’s share of the good of education was captured by the well-off with a small amount saved for the most able.
Indeed, perhaps the easiest argument that can be made about a Blue Labour position on education is that it would object to the commodification of education, whether through a free market or a managerialist quasi-market, in which parents and children simply become customers of educational service providers. Blue Labour is in a position to suggest an increase in the influence of communities on education, for instance, Maurice Glasman suggested the following administrative changes:
“…what Blue Labour would say is that there should be a third, a third, a third. A third of power with parents, so that the schools are genuinely places where they have power over the education for their children; a third with the teachers so that we can really honour the vocation and expertise of teachers and then a third with the funder, whether that would be the local authority or the state. A third, a third, a third.”
Given the gulf that exists between teachers and governors, and often between parents and the parental representatives on governing bodies, this idea could well be an improvement on the status quo. However, it leaves untouched the difficult issues of schooling: the questions of what should be taught to whom and where. In the absence of Blue Labour having any obvious policy positions on this, we have seen a couple of attempts to navigate a Blue Labour direction in schools policy, where those involved have simply tied themselves to existing masts.
Firstly, in his chapter of “The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox” James Purnell declared (admittedly with some caveats which I have not quoted):
“Mutuality, reciprocity, and organization are good guides to what is insufficient about empowerment. But they do not replace it. For example, they’re not a guide to renewing education policy. In fact, in education, we need to go further in a New Labour direction, not turn around… people should be able to choose a school for their child”
More recently, in their article [no longer available] on the Blue Labour Blog two ex-teachers Jim O’Connell-Lauder and Jamie Audsley argued for a social engineering model of schooling, actually using the phrase “a tool of social justice” and suggesting that individuals (parents, children and even teachers) can, through reforming schools into democratic institutions, be transformed into “democratic citizens”.
This notion of schooling, where the state and its enlightened administrators decide what type of people the masses should become is an extension of the Every Child Matters agenda that became dominant in the later years of the last Labour government, which in turn was simply a new manifestation of the progressive tradition in education, where academic aims are side-lined by political, cultural, social or emotional concerns. It is also in the opposite direction to Blue Labour’s confidence in the existing values of working class communities, and scepticism of middle class liberal values.
So, having set out how little Blue Labour has so far been able to say about education, where do we go from here? At the very least, perhaps the following questions are worth considering (and I make no pretence that these questions don’t heavily reflect my own personal concerns and beliefs about education):
1) How can we ensure that the educational outcomes for working class children are not simply what middle class professionals think are appropriate for “children like these”? Much educational debate, for instance the debate over selection, or over the value of qualifications, assumes that there is a significant class of usually working class “non-academic” children who must be appreciated for being different rather than given greater opportunity to succeed. Not everyone can become a professor at Oxford, but it should not be the role of Labour politicians to cap working class aspirations.
2) How do attempts to “include” badly behaved children in the classroom, regardless of their behaviour, reflect the values of working class communities? If Blue Labour respects the conservatism of working class parents, then there can be little reason for letting a child from a disciplined home environment, where the authority of adults is respected, endure the chaos of a permissive school environment run by middle class liberals where poor behaviour by a child is seen as a social or emotional problem to be treated therapeutically, rather than an attack on the interests of other children.
3) How can Blue Labour change the top-down culture of schools? While some comment has been made about central government initiatives that create paperwork or interfere with school management, very little attention has been given to the way in which classroom teachers are managed. How many teachers in a school should have a management responsibility? How much of a teacher’s work should be open to continual scrutiny by managers?
4) How much should teachers and schools be concerning themselves with non-academic aspects of children’s lives? Blue Labour criticises the bureaucratic welfare state, and should be the first critic of schools where the dominant culture brings to mind management consultants trying to frustrate social workers, rather than that of an academic institution.