Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Whose side are you on?

Gove is gone, but has ‘the blob’ won? The battle between the former secretary of state for education and the teaching unions was presented as a zero-sum game, not least by Michael Gove himself. His every move had to be a victory – which had to mean a defeat for his opponents. Unfortunately, Gove’s own narrative had no place for parents or for children. It was ‘Michael v The Machine’; he was fighting for himself, not for anyone else.

So, when he left his post, he was disliked not only by teachers, but also by parents. He felt he was standing up for standards, when he should have been standing up for parents and children. He was not wrong in pushing for higher standards. Tristram Hunt has also pointed out that raising standards across schools will most benefit the most vulnerable pupils. However, standards are impersonal and abstract: Gove never personalised them. People want to know not just what politicians are for; they want to know who they are for.

With Michael Gove, the public was very clear who he was against – teachers – but he left them in the dark about who he was for. That should have been parents. He was also needlessly combative. To be on the side of parents, you do not have to be against teachers. Most parents do not see teachers as their enemy. Gove’s failing was that most parents did come to see him as their enemy – something that was not lost on Linton Crosby.

This leaves a big space for Labour to be the parents’ champion. That does not mean relaxing Gove’s emphasis on the highest of standards for all of our children. Where standards of education, behaviour and expectations are intolerably low, we should be on the side of those who intervene, not those who excuse poor education which they would never tolerate for their own children.

However, it does mean ending the changes that focussed more on ideology than on the people who actually experience our schools and education. Free schools were presented as the answer to all educational ills, yet the policy often ignored the parents and children who were supposed to benefit. In Waltham Forest, the government have only just agreed funding for a free school that is going to open at the beginning of September. Until last week, parents had no idea whether the school was even a goer. One parent contacted us recently to politely ask whether we knew where the school was going to be! This is not a system which puts parents at its heart.

When the government came in, it immediately scrapped Building Schools for the Future. While not perfect, a programme which promised public school-standard facilities for all pupils was always going to be popular with parents and children. Two years later, it announced the successor to BSF – the Priority Schools Building Programme. Two years after that, and only one school (a primary in Coventry) has actually opened under that programme: great for parents in Coventry; not great for parents anywhere else.

We have to put parents at the heart of our education policy. That does not mean that we pander – where parents’ expectations for their own children do not match our expectations for them, we should be squarely on the side of their children. But it does mean taking parents on a journey. What do we consider good education to be? Why do we think that education is important? What do we think a good school looks like? What do we think a good teacher looks like? We do not have to be prescriptive: what works for Tottenham may not work for Tiverton. But we do have to set out our values, and we do have to say whose side we are on – things that Michael Gove did not do.

We also have to be clear with parents as to what they can expect from any English school (free, academy or community; faith or secular) and also what any English school will expect of them. In Waltham Forest, we are starting to work with our schools on a contract with parents. We will explain what they can expect from the Council and their school: when we will intervene to protect standards, what enrichment activities their children can expect, what we will do to help them prepare for university and work. But we will not be the only ones signing this contract; we will expect parents to sign as well, agreeing to uphold their own role. Even if it no longer takes a village to raise a child, it certainly takes more than a school, a council and an academy chain.

A Labour Contract with Parents could be at the heart of our plans for education in the next government. It would place our values centre-stage – our world-view is not of Oxbridge for the elite and a scramble for zero-hour contracts for the rest; it is of good education for all, leading to good jobs for all. By explaining not just what we are for, but also who we are for, we will beat Michael Gove’s Manichean mind-set, seeing parents, teachers, councils and schools of all types as being in this together. And we would place parents at the heart of all we do, something at which Gove conspicuously failed.

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Mark Rusling is a Labour councillor in Waltham Forest, where he is lead member for children and young people

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Photo: David Gilmour

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Mark Rusling

is cabinet member for economic development and corporate resources on Waltham Forest council

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