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Towards a Blue Labour Agenda on Schools Part 2

July 20, 2014

As I mentioned here, I recently attended the Blue Labour Midlands Seminar. Obviously my motivation was as much to do with being a Labour activist as it is to do with being an education blogger, although one of the main reasons for attending was to hear from a couple of people I have met through education blogging. That said, given the subject matter of this blog, I only intend to reflect here almost exclusively on those aspects of discussion I thought are relevant to the education debate.

I consider myself to be, ideologically, Blue Labour. I like it when Labour politics are broad enough to be presentable in churches, mosques, factories, shop floors and on the doorstep in deprived areas, rather than the preserve of life-long political professionals, journalists and under-achieving members of the middle class who get very angry while watching Question Time on a Thursday night. I like it when people’s politics are shaped more by their workplace, their parents and their neighbours than by a university education or what they read in a newspaper. I like it when you don’t have to apologise for not following the latest ideological fashion (you noticed?) or dismiss the mass of the population as brainwashed by the Daily Mail. There’s probably very few who like the label “Blue Labour”, but a lot of the grassroots of the Labour Party, particularly in the heartlands, combine an affinity to the Labour Party with a conservatism about the power of politicians or public servants to determine values or culture for the rest of society.

However, I also have an educational agenda. I think that the disastrous involvement of the left with progressive education may have stemmed from a wider ideological failing of seeing state education as a tool by which an enlightened middle-class could deconstruct and re-engineer culture and society rather than as a way to meet working class aspirations. I think this has resulted in two terrible ideas. Firstly, the idea that the working class needed to be protected from the bourgeois culture of the educated by not being taught the same content as those in private or grammar schools. Secondly, the idea that while (with middle class supervision) the lot of the working class as a whole could be improved, the individuals within that class must be told to “rise with your class, not beyond it” (in the phrase I heard from Scottish educational David Cameron late in the 43rd minute of this video). Both attitudes, while left-wing on the face of it, have helped restrict education to an elite. I do see Blue Labour ideas as challenging the paternalism of these attitudes and potentially challenging Labour’s intermittent but frequent lapses into signing off on the ideas of progressive education.

It’s probably worth mentioning that the Blue Labour seminar was a relatively small affair, despite being advertised online, it seemed fairly exclusive. It was actually a bit disconcerting to be greeted personally by the key people on arrival, which doesn’t tend to happen at any political events (or for that matter education events) I normally attend. A lot of the people there already knew each other and there was far more of a sense of it being about like-minded people sharing ideas with each other, than the building of anything larger or an attempt to reach a wider audience. Even though there was a Twitter hashtag for the event it often looked like I was almost the only one tweeting, and part way through there was a warning to be careful about tweeting names as well as ideas. I will, where I’m not quoting something already public, try to follow this advice in this blog, although I suspect it might be an over-reaction to a past history of Blue Labour people being condemned for various forms of political incorrectness when expressing utterly unremarkable opinions.

Whatever the limitations of the event’s structure for reaching a wider audience or prompting productive action, it served as almost constant mental stimulation for me. It seemed like every speaker and  every member of the audience had something interesting to say. A fair number had implications for education even if they weren’t directly about education. The key note speech by Ruth Davis, which can be found here, raised the question of the role of science in politics, in a way that reminded of the debate over research in education, warning against both the extremes of “classification, measurement, and codification” hollowing out other methods of understanding, and “the mad, the bad, or the silly” believing that “we make our own reality”. Remarks from Lord Glasman about the word “progressive” (and how it is not something you want to hear from your doctor) probably amused me as a teacher (and critic of “progressive” education).

A session about “Challenging Left Orthodoxies” with several different speakers also touched on issues relating to education mainly because some of the worst orthodoxies on the left have been used to justify progressive education. One speaker identified “anti-authoritarianism” as such an orthodoxy, and directly connected that to the rise of “child-centred” education. Another identified the rhetoric of “challenging orthodoxies” as something of a recurring narrative in the Labour Party, something I am also familiar with from education (see here, particularly the comments). The other speaker identified “post-modernism” as the worst of the orthodoxies that limit the effectiveness of the left, observing that it makes academic discourse a problem as it assumes relativism. He quoted an unidentified university lecturer as advising him that “you never see a poor post-modernist”. Obviously, I don’t endorse the use of an ad hominem argument, but hard to miss how in education a post-modern scepticism about science, tradition, morality or reason is remarkably often used by those with power in institutions to resist calls for a change in the status quo, rather than to challenge privilege.

After lunch there was, and this was the major reason I’d wished to attend, a panel on “Education, Community and Family” which included my fellow education blogger Michael Merrick (who writes Outside In). He was the only panellist to talk mainly about education (although another spent time explaining why he has sent his children to private and faith schools despite pre-existing convictions to the contrary). Michael’s talk can be found here and is well worth reading. His argument that a belief that education was for employment led to a belief that academic education was not for all, and to reinforce class segregation, went down particularly well. Another panellist’s response to this seemed to suggest that some assumed that he was asking for more respect for vocational qualifications, where as I assumed he was suggesting that they might be part of the problem. He also questioned the focus on social mobility:

For social mobility effectively means, in contemporary parlance, the ability to move away from those you know and love. With the heavy implication that failure to do so somehow represents a mournful loss of potential and indeed choosing to do so is itself a signifier of success.

And again, another panellist seemed to assume that this was a reference to Michael Young’s critique of meritocracy as anti-egalitarian, rather than, as I took it, a criticism of a narrow view of what the well-educated should aspire to. Finally, his most controversial point was to suggest that free schools and faith schools served to build a stronger sense of community, which is not really something I’d ever considered about free schools. It is certainly worth considering whether complaints about an “atomised” school system on the left actually reflect a concern about an atomised bureaucracy rather than atomised communities.

While there was further discussion around education, most of it reflected fairly conventional debates. At one point a Birmingham City Councillor claimed that the creation of free schools had created the perfect situation for “Trojan Horse style” problems, which, given the irony of the source, will probably stick with me as the best possible evidence that debate over Trojan Horse is largely about allocating blame according to the opinions one already held. Perhaps the only other point to make me reflect on education, was when it was suggested that a symptom of the modern condition was people who hate their parents. It made me wonder whether that forms the motivation for many who (in R.S. Peters’ phrase) see schools as “orphanages for children with parents”. Do people who want schools to take over more and more of the parental sphere in providing values, compassion and guidance in life, have the faults of their own parents in mind?

I realise the two posts on Blue Labour may have wondered into some fairly obscure territory, and I do intend to let it drop here, but I thought it worth sharing some of these reflections. Education politics is fundamentally about values, but it is staggeringly rare to find outlets in politics where one can discuss values explicitly rather than assuming them. Too often in politics moral superiority is to be assumed, but never justified.  Even the most obviously ethical components of political discussion are treated as purely technical matters where the underlying principles are already agreed, and only the mad or depraved would doubt them. At the very least, Blue Labour has been willing to challenge that type of thinking.

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2 comments

  1. When we were attempting to open our Free School in Oldham, our office manager–a chap with impeccable working-class credentials who had failed miserably in school and obtained the foundations of a half-decent education in the Army–proposed that we have a breakfast club. I hated to shoot down a well-intentioned idea, but everyone eventually agreed that it was a bad idea to send out the message that it’s OK to send your children to school hungry.

    I’ve used a few good quotes from RS Peters before, but the the one about schools being “orphanages for children with parents” would have been especially appropriate. I should add that I homeschooled my son from the age of 8, a decision that neither of us regretted for a second.


  2. “However, I also have an educational agenda. I think that the disastrous involvement of the left with progressive education may have stemmed from a wider ideological failing of seeing state education as a tool by which an enlightened middle-class could deconstruct and re-engineer culture and society rather than as a way to meet working class aspirations.”

    I agree. In fact I think it can be traced back to the failures of ’68 and the abandonment of the “economic base” in favour of an assault on the “cultural superstructure” by academics which has resulted in over 4 decades of “masturbatory dissent”, the emergence of ‘theory’ and the elevation of anything which seemed counter to established wisdom into something liberating and revolutionary. However, I think educationalists were simply following the prevailing cultural and academic trends. The consequences were horrific.

    Revisionist theories which recast, say, Hemmingway as a misogynist, white-supremacist, subconsciously hidebound to a colonialist capitalist ethic are one thing. Nobody suffers. No one gets hurt…except perhaps the sensibilities of Hemmingway fans. Revisionist theories which recast children as lost souls ground down by a Gradgrindian social order, in need of liberation are quite another matter; especially when the means of liberation required us to jettison anything that required rigour, concentration or hard work.

    It comes down to your description of Blue Labour as socially conservative. It’s become a widespread liberal conceit-not one solely confined to education-to regard ‘traditional’ as a pejorative; the antithesis of the ubiquitous striving for progressiveness. This is facile and childish but, unfortunately, it’s self-perpetuating and highly resistant to reform. This, I think, is because it suits too many vested interests and has always had an ideological rather than any sort of empirical base…empiricism doubtless being regarded as firmly planted within the domain of the ‘traditional’.

    I teach Maths. I like to get the Maths right…more fool me. Teaching teamwork, ‘creativity’ and ‘thinking outside the box’ are of course what I should be doing…or so various cartoons keep telling me; in order that my students will be prepared for jobs which ‘haven’t even been invented yet’. I’m going to go out on a limb here and take a wild punt that these yet-to-be-invented careers will involve Maths and communicating clearly. Am I a bad teacher? Say what you like about Gove and Wilshaw but after years of interference from useful idiots, I’d finally thought I was doing the right thing after all. Surely, I haven’t got to go back to being a reactionary dinosaur again? I was just getting used to being one of the good guys.



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