'New Labour', Old Policies:

Tony Blair's 'Vision' for Education in Britain.

 

Mike Cole & Dave Hill

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After eighteen years of Conservative rule and Labour defeat, the British people have finally elected a 'New Labour' government with the accent on youth and an eye to the future. So will Tony Blair change the face of public education in Britain? Unfortunately not, say Mike Cole and Dave Hill.

History, no doubt, will view the Thatcher era as a turning point in late twentieth century capitalism. However, congruent with her success in championing the free market as the only viable way to run economies, history will also presumably see Margaret Thatcher as the person who, almost singlehandedly, wiped socialism off the agenda of political change in Britain. She did this, partly, through updating a simplistic and fundamentally false equation implanted in commonsense. Thus the old adage of Socialism = Communism = Soviet-style dictatorship = Lack of Freedom became Socialism = Communism = Soviet-style dictatorship = Lack of Freedom = Old-style Labour Party = Real Labour (lurking behind New Labour).

Following the late 1980s revolutions in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Marxism, Margaret Thatcher argued, was now extinct. Therefore the Labour Party was, by definition, also extinct. It is precisely the success of this formulation which projected Tony Blair to centre stage as 'saviour' of the Labour Party - but only if the Labour Party became reformulated around free market forces, rejecting the now extinguished socialist components of its Constitution. Old Labour is dead. Long live 'New Labour'.

The left in Britain was fully aware of this before the last election. Hence the very real jubilation among socialists after the Labour victory had more to do with the defeat of the Tories than the victory of 'New Labour'. And there was jubilation for a sheer sense of relief was shared by vast sections of the British population. Out went the governing assortment of grotesque, arrogant, out-of-touch, downright reactionary, self-enriching, small-minded characters who had been running the show for two decades.

Day by day came announcements which fuelled popular wonderment that the Tories were actually gone. Early measures included the abolition of the Assisted Places Scheme (which allowed a few children to attend private schools at public expense) in order to reduce class sizes to a maximum of 30 for the majority of students still in public schools; the promise of a National Minimum Wage; the promise to join the European Social Chapter, with its increased rights for full-time and part-time workers; the 'Windfall Tax' on the profits of privatised utilities in order to fund an education and employment program for the quarter of a million young unemployed; the attack on and dressing down of the National Lottery's 'fat cat' directors and their massive pay bonuses; the ban on the production and export of land mines; and the Kennedy Report's subsequently ditched suggestion of a major redistribution of funding from the predominantly middle class Higher Education sector to the primarily working class Adult and Further education sectors.

For those on the left, these reforms were certainly welcome. However, on analysis it is obvious that they are not designed in any way to radically restructure the economy, or society in general for that matter. And why would they? For 'New Labour' was coined as part of an orchestrated campaign to distance the party from its socialist roots and to establish an unequivocal pro-capitalist base for itself, not to change the system. Hence the crucial importance for Blair, who was anointed by Lady Thatcher as 'probably the most formidable Labour leader since Hugh Gaitskell', of abandoning the anti-capitalist Clause IV from the Party Constitution.

The Labour Party has shifted so far to the right in this reformulation that Roy Hattersley, formerly deputy leader and traditionally associated with the social-democratic right of the party, can now attack New Labour's education policy from what appears to be a 'left' perspective, arguing that the ideological lodestar of any Labour policy should be whether or not it will lead to 'equality of outcome'.

In his speeches both prior to and following his election victory, Tony Blair has continually alluded to some new middle ground he calls the 'radical centre' by eliding aspects of both Old Left and New Right policy while declaring publicly that 'the era of the grand ideologies, all encompassing, all pervasive, total in their solutions, and often dangerous, is over'. This postmodernist assertion is an unconvincing euphemism for declaring the end of socialism and social policy as planks of Labour Party policy, therefore acquiescing with and indeed building upon the existing goals of the conservative hegemony.

It is significant that Blair immediately followed this 'end of ideology' announcement with the reassurance that 'the battle between market and public sector is over', signalling that New Labour accepts the centrality of the 'free market'. New Labour has, in fact, declared its decision to leave the major utilities in private hands, to take nothing whatsoever back into public control, and even to proceed to semi-privatise the London Underground. Moreover it is not just market capitalism on which there is now apparently an all-party agreement, for all New Labour's other major policy decisions are virtually indistinguishable from their Conservative predecessors - policies such as maintaining low levels of taxation with no major increase in public spending; retaining the bulk of Tory anti-trade union and anti-immigration legislation; 'cracking down' on 'welfare fraud' rather than increasing social security provisions to make society more equitable; continuing with the major part of the arms sales trade; retaining the divisive competitive market in schooling, including selective grammar schools; and maintaining the Tory policy of using redundancy and dismissal to squash dissent in public education.

In the European Union Blair's economic argument, which emphasises labour flexibility and cheapness in the global economy, also continues Tory policy in the face of denunciation not only by the left but also from the OECD, which rejects the conclusion that de-unionisation, job insecurity, lack of collective bargaining and impoverishment of the poorest really leads to more job creation and increased employment.

Prior to the election, media reports on New Labour's education policy statement, which was grandiosely entitled Excellence for Everyone: Labour's Crusade to Raise Standards, highlighted the differences between Old Labour and New Labour on the one hand, and the similarities between the Conservatives and New Labour on the other - policies concerning teachers, tests, failing schools, and local education authorities. The Times Education Supplement was not alone in noting that 'both Labour and Conservatives declare education their national priority'. Many of the policies, indeed, show striking similarities. The then Shadow Education Secretary, David Blunkett, in yet another reversal of Old Labour's policy, refused to commit a Labour Government to comprehensivisation and the abolition of grammar schools, a refusal which has since been maintained. This total acceptance of a hierarchical division in education has exposed major divisions in the party, exemplified appropriately by the reaction to Tony Blair's own decision to send his son to an opted out school and shadow cabinet member Harriet Harman's decision to send one of her sons to a selective grammar school.

Since the election the hackles of teachers, a large majority of whom voted Labour, were raised by Blair's publication only days after his victory, of a 'hit-list' of eighteen 'failing schools' - all of them in areas of high social deprivation. The 'naming and shaming' policy was exacerbated by the new government's decision to keep in office the widely disliked Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead, albeit in conjunction with New Labour's Tim Brighouse, as co-ordinator of a national School Effectiveness task force.

The July Labour government white paper, Excellence in Schools, promises education for all four-year olds whose parents want it; greater intervention in the Primary curriculum, with an hour a day for literacy and numeracy; school performance league tables to include 'value added' information as well as raw data for each school; a furtherance of specialist schools; fast-tracking for the brightest Secondary School students; an end to mixed ability teaching, replacing it instead with 'setting' by ability for different subjects; compulsory home-school contracts and homework; and increased supervisory powers for the local education authorities emasculated by the previous government.

However welcome some of New Labour's measures have been so far, for example nursery education and reduced class sizes, they are largely extensions of Conservative Party policies. They break no new ground and reverse direction in no significant way. In fact, the unwarranted attack on mixed ability teaching actually extends Tory policy quite dramatically. It is evident that the New Labour government is accepting the neo-liberal and neo-conservative settlement of Thatcherism as a sound basis for future developments. It will accept the competitive market in schooling and the neo-conservative national curriculum in schooling, teacher education, and Further Education. It will also, albeit in a modified form with some extra powers given to the Local Education Authorities, accept the lack of locally elected democratic accountability across most of the education system.

In schools many teachers have never really stopped promoting equality and equal opportunities. Schooling, teacher education, and education in general they know should be concerned with issues of social justice and actively developed to combat racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination against the disabled, and the exploitation of ordinary working people and unemployed people. Education must teach about cultural diversity and promote an awareness of how other societies both have been and could be structured. Education should not be designed to produce a compliant and ignorantly-accepting labour force which can see no further than the cynical competitiveness of market fixated structures. This is what realistically is involved in raising standards, not some back to basics assault on literacy and numeracy.

The fact that a majority of teachers voted Labour in the last election would seem to indicate that these voters in particular wanted change rather than 'more of the same'. While New Labour is still, to a certain extent, riding on a media generated wave of support, this 'modernising' faction still exerts only disputed control within the Labour Party itself, which has not as yet renamed itself the New Labour Party. The leadership may well currently exert hegemonic control over the party but this is not a monolithic control, either over its membership or even over its MPs and there is already considerable opposition from within. So if Tony Blair's 'vision' of education means the near future looks bleak, it certainly won't be without incident...

Mike Cole, Faculty of Education, University of Brighton, UK.

Dave Hill, Nene College of Higher Education, Northampton, UK.

They are both the co-founders of the Hillcole Group of radical Left educators.

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