Reflecting upon the political debate over the last 10 days, what has been very evident is the degree of pride and affection in which Tories hold Margaret Thatcher. Time is a great healer, but her supporters are relentless in championing council house sales, privatisation, trade union reform and her enthusiasm for enterprise as having changed Britain for the better, despite the devastation that many of her policies caused in Britain’s industrial heartlands and cities.
Labour politicians and members should be equally proud of the governments led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The national minimum wage, nursery education for all three and four year olds, city academies, record investment in the NHS, peace in Northern Ireland and civil partnerships have all changed Britain for the better. New Labour made Britain a more tolerant, dynamic and kinder place to live, where more people than ever before had the opportunity to go to university, to start a business and to live their lives free of prejudice.
As one of the Thatcher ‘generation’, having had the dubious distinction of spending all of my secondary and higher education with Thatcher in No 10, I have reflected on my schooldays over the last week and Labour’s investment in education from 1997 to 2010. Although I was taught by some excellent teachers at my Oxfordshire comprehensive, my day-to-day experience was one of having lessons in large classes (35 pupils was not uncommon), in temporary classrooms, sharing textbooks and the school day beginning to be disrupted by industrial action. Far fewer of my contemporaries stayed on at school and went to university than is the case today. I can’t remember anyone at university becoming a teacher. Shortly after graduating, I moved to Lambeth, where the reputation of many of the borough’s schools, particularly the secondary schools, was poor. The picture was very similar in many London boroughs and large cities. In 1997 teacher recruitment and retention, particularly in London and the south-east was a huge problem, standards were far too low and many school buildings were falling apart.
Today Britain’s schools are so much better as a result of Labour’s investment and reform, and the hard work and professionalism of teachers, support staff, governors and pupils. The quality of education in inner London is unrecognisable from 20 year ago. One of Labour’s most important achievements in government which is never discussed is the raising of the status of the teaching profession. Thanks to a Labour government focusing on ‘education, education, education’ teaching is now a sought-after career. Britain’s best graduates now want to become teachers, which they never did in the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to greater investment in schools, better pay and career prospects, greater political support for state education and programmes such as Teach First. More still needs to be done to attract high-calibre graduates to teach maths, physics and chemistry, but, nevertheless, the transformation of the teaching profession should be a source of great pride to Labour party members.
City academies will be a lasting legacy of the Blair and Brown era, as they have significantly raised aspirations and improved educational achievement in some of Britain’s most deprived communities. Secondary education in Hackney and Southwark has been transformed by city academy investment, as have communities in Sunderland, Salford, Wolverhampton and Walsall. Yet one rarely hears Labour party members talk about academies with any great pride. Many members continue to feel passionately about the comprehensive ideal without being able to acknowledge that when we came into government in 1997 radical change was urgently needed. Too many of our young people from low-income families were being failed by the state. One of Blair’s most unrecognised achievements was to banish to the political dustbin the too widely held belief among educational professionals that nothing much could be expected of children who lived on council estates. Stephen Twigg has been right to criticise Michael Gove for abandoning the original concept of academies, which was to provide a much higher quality of secondary education in deprived communities where existing schools were failing to deliver.
We should also be very proud of our record of investment in higher education and enabling many more young people to go to university than was the case in the 1980s. Thatcher may have talked the language of opportunity, but her governments did very little to encourage more young people to aspire to go to university. When our opponents criticise the Labour government’s target of increasing the participation rate of 18-to-30-year-olds to 50 per cent, we should remind them that our global competitors in the BRIC countries are rapidly expanding higher education. Labour was right to reinstate grants for low-income students from 2006 and to exempt them from fees.
A Conservative government would never have raised the school leaving age to 18. It would never have introduced a national programme such as Aim Higher to widen participation among non-traditional groups of students, or the Office for Fair Access. It is inconceivable that either Blair or Brown would have agreed to raise tuition fees to £9,000 per year. Labour’s policy review must produce detailed proposals as to how a future Labour government would reform undergraduate and postgraduate funding.
Education will always be a cause that stimulates passionate debate among and with Labour party members and supporters. We must always take pride in our achievements, be more ambitious for the future of our young people and never allow the Tories to claim the mantle of aspiration and achievement. We allowed that in the 1980s and a generation of young people paid the price in terms of low standards, lost opportunities and unemployment.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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