French lessons on accessible education

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.


After Bradford West: a five point plan for Labour

For anyone trying to gather why George Galloway won the Bradford West by-election so convincingly, they need to look no further than much of the Labour reaction. For a worryingly high section of the party, including some who would consider themselves on the left, there was an attitude of either blaming voters for daring to look elsewhere or Galloway for standing and acting as some kind Pied Piper figure, leading the poor simpletons of Bradford West astray. If the party is to make progress, it can take the following from the result:

  1. Don’t take support for granted. The Bradford West result must be melted down, made into a nail and hammered into the coffin of triangulation. Working class communities need a reason to come out and vote Labour – the alternative is our core vote sitting on their hands and letting the Tories sneak in (alas, if Labour repeats the mistakes of Bradford West in other seats come the next election, they are highly likely to shift right). As Diane Abbott acknowledged, Galloway understood the importance of taking his campaign to the community, and was rewarded handsomely.
  2. We have to realise that the wars still matter- and join the movement against more. The lack of importance some in the party place on the neo-con foreign policy agenda of the last decade is quite astonishing. ‘Iraq was ten years ago, and we won the seat in 2005, so clearly Iraq was irrelevant’ snapped the denial brigade. As well as the fact that, yes, even after 10 years, the butchering of a country does linger in the memory of quite a lot of people, the idea that the continuing presence of British troops in Afghanistan affects perceptions of the party seems alien to far too many. With this in mind, the importance of taking an active stance against aggression towards Iran (and indeed Syria, or any other country) cannot be overstated. Support for the disastrous NATO war on Libya doesn’t bear well, but apologising for Iraq and calling for an end to settlements in Palestine is a start on the long road towards creating a party of peace.
  3. Mobilised youth are a polical force to be reckoned with. Key to Galloway’s success were the high level of young people who had been through the experiences of the anti-war and austerity movements. Students hitting the streets in winter 2010 were the first to turn the tide on the coalition, and creating a presence amongst these young people is vital. In order to do this we will need give them something to come out for – Ken Livingstone’s pledge to reinstate EMA for FE students in London is an excellent start, but this needs to be used as a prototype for national policies. Over half of young black men in Britain are currently unemployed. We should be shouting that from the rooftops. And yes – we need to talk about free education again.
  4. Labour has to examine its relationships with Muslim communities. One of the more unpleasant responses to Galloway’s victory has been the suggestion that ‘the Muslim vote’ is somehow tainted and invalid. As well as wars waged on Muslim countries abroad, all too often Labour politicians have seen scapegoating Muslims as fair game- Liam Byrne’s vile campaign in Birmingham comes to mind particularly. This has extended to how people within the party are treated – see the expulsion of Lutfur Rahman, Gilligan smears being used against Ken Livingstone etc. However, MPs such as Jeremy Corbyn have managed to develop strong links with local Muslim groups by speaking out against Islamophobia and the war-mongering of the coalition and the Labour leadership before them. These are the kinds of alliances that must be built.
  5. Austerity needs a fighting response – and a radical alternative. In a week with clear national anger at a ConDem budget so blatantly by and for the rich, Labour has gained its greatest momentum by coming out against it – Ed Miliband’s interrogation of the frontbench was been perhaps his most impressive PMQs performance so far. However, Labour needs to extend its opposition to the budget to the wider austerity agenda. Galloway’s election literature calling for the abolition of tuition fees and a strong anti-cuts message resonates with those being hit by the cuts far more than ‘too far, too fast’. The argument for a different direction of political travel can be won- but we need to make it first.

The key factor with all of these is that the people of Bradford West trusted Galloway to fight their corner over Labour. What the party has to do if it is to stop Britain going through an irreversible destruction of its greatest achievements is to take the fight to the coalition. If it starts to do this, then maybe we can start to talk about being the party of working people once again.


By Ben Hayes

Scrap Trident to scrap fees, Calum Sherwood writes

Ed Miliband’s announcement at Labour Party conference apparently endorsing £6000 fees was a great disappointment to many students, within and without the party. As a leadership candidate Miliband had endorsed a graduate tax, which while imperfect, suggested to students he was opposed to the status quo. To accept the reviled tuition fees system as here to stay severely jeopardises Miliband’s position with students, and as Nick Clegg has seen, this can be a dangerous move. Students refuse to accept that free education is off the negotiation table, and the Labour Party must seize back the progressive ground on higher education policy.

Up and down the country, the student movement shares a common set of values which is opposed to privatisation, cuts to essential services, the marketisation of education and the furthering of a militaristic and imperialist foreign policy. The most effective way for the Labour Party to win back the support of those students who abandoned the party would be to demonstrate that they are in tune with those same values. Labour must begin by explicitly opposing the renewal of the Trident weapons system; at a cost of £100 billion when EMA is being scrapped and tuition fees are being raised to a phenomenal cost, students would appreciate a reality check on renewing such an egregiously costly relic from the Cold War days.

Labour must condemn any further imperialist interventions by Britain, opposing the sabre-rattling of those who would have us do to Iran what we did to Iraq. Labour must get on the side of 74% of the British public and agree that four more years of war in Afghanistan is unacceptable. Lastly, Labour must support free education for all. If education is a universal right, financial burden should never become a factor in achieving one’s academic potential. Knowledge is not a commodity which can simply be bought and sold, and to think so is anathema to the values of the Labour Party itself. Miliband must remember how his boldness energised students during his leadership campaign, and in turn harness the boldness of the values of the student movement in order to win them back to Labour.


Calum Sherwood is Co-Chair of Bristol Uni Labour Students.

The article was originally posted at Labour CND.