Back in 2010, the 50,000 students that took part at one of London’s largest demonstrations in recent memory were very sure of what they were protesting against: the Coalition’s proposals, now realised, to cut state funding for higher education and to triple the cost of university tuition fees. Unfortunately, the protest is remembered more for the violence of a few students and heavy-handed police tactics than for its political influence. Towards the end of the afternoon the focus of the demonstration had waned to the extent that some groups swapped their placards and chants for dubstep and dancing.
A local protest at my university around the same period spurred an impromptu occupation in front of an important administrative building. Eager students scaled the fence and gave leg ups to their friends to fill the lawn. Yet, as was the case in London, once protest at the plans had been demonstrated there seemed to be no agreement about what should be done next. Hard-hitting slogans dissipated into a disorganised mix of anarchist rhetoric and directionless ‘fuck-the-system’ rants. The crowd became smaller as people decided to escape the cold and go home for tea.
Labour, like the protesting students, is sure of what it opposes. This is no bad thing when faced with Michael Gove and David Willetts’ drastic cuts and policies, such as the promotion of a ‘military ethos’ in schools that seems to lament the death of the cane. The GCSE marking scandal and confusion over the free schools scheme and the expansion of academies have resulted in what Chuka Umunna recently described as an “omnishambles”. However, also like the students, Labour must be careful that it does not let lack of focus undermine the strength of its criticism. A clearer vision for education would not only create a point of common ground for Labour supporters and students beyond the opposition to Coalition education policy, but would also lend any future protests greater impact.
Labour does have some ideas for education reform. Ed Miliband recently announced plans for a Technical Baccalaureate, for what he termed the “forgotten 50%” who do not obtain the grades necessary for university, as a serious vocational alternative to Michael Gove’s plans for a stringently academic English Baccalaureate. Yet soon after the announcement of the Tech Bacc at the Labour conference, the idea was adopted by Gove, leading some to suggest that he had stolen the idea. Labour would perhaps be better focussing its campaign on the provision of a broader curriculum than the Ebacc allows, as music and art risk being sidelined for exam-focussed lessons on the key subjects, vital for the all-important league tables.
The switch to a single, government-regulated exam board and the decision to raise the education participation age to 18, supported by both Labour and the Coalition, are evocative of a more European-style education system. The espousal of the word ‘Baccalaureate’ suggests an admiration for the French system in particular. This may be no bad thing – although elitism is still present in France, sciences are held in higher esteem as they rely less on the cultural capital that can give middle class students an advantage in arts subjects. Vocational qualifications are also well developed, highly regarded and most often lead to a job, which is more than can be said for the UK’s system of NVQs (initials sometimes jokingly referred to as standing for ‘not very qualified’).
There are two main differences in the French system which allows it to outstrip the UK on equal access to education. Firstly, state universities are free or at most a couple of hundred pounds a year to attend, with generous bursaries offered to cover living costs. Labour could be stronger in its proposals to reverse or lessen the UK’s £9,000 yearly fees, especially for poorer students, to re-establish education as a right, not a privilege.
However, the most striking difference between the two education systems is the relative non-existence of private education in France, where the few private schools are in general either religious or no better than their state counterparts. The divide between private and state education in the UK continues to represent in stark relief equalities ingrained in our education system and politics. If Labour wants to mobilise its voters on the Left and provide a vision for a truly equal school system, it could take a harder line on private education, ensuring private schools better serve local communities, as well as continuing to improve the state sector so that eventually no one will want to go private, as is the case in France.
Labour must return to focus on ‘Education, education, education’ with strong radical policies that favour a good quality education available for all.
- By Katie Forster
- First published for Chartist Jan/Feb 2013 edition, edited by Next Generation Labour’s Cat Smith