John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for January, 2014


What exactly can private schools teach the state sector? | John Harris

Monday, January 20th, 2014

As the head of an independent school puts forward plans to tackle educational inequality by blurring public and private, he can’t avoid the fact his sector is at the heart of the problem

Another day, another questionable intervention about state education. Early in the new year Michael Gove made those comments about Blackadder. The week after that, Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw proved that his talent for motivating teachers was undimmed when he warned them about being seen as “serial complainers”. Meanwhile, Labour’s Tristram Hunt was dancing to Gove-ish tunes with his proposals for licensing teachers via their own Royal College. Now there comes the latest contribution from Anthony Seldon, the prolific political biographer and master of the fee-paying Wellington College.

This week will see the publication of a report he has written for the Social Market Foundation, titled Schools United, and strap-lined “ending the divide between independent and state” (sectors, that is). As he sees it, there are strong continuities between the approach to education pioneered by such New Labour high-ups as Andrew Adonis and the policies of the current government, and it’s now time for the “Adonis-Gove agenda to be completed fully”.

Subdue any sense of panic, if only for a moment. Seldon says he wants policy that “enhances social mobility, ends the divide between state and independent schools, engages parents far more fully … and ensures all young people have much richer opportunities, regardless of family background.” Among other things, he’s guilty of the usual establishment habit of suggesting that responsibility for dealing with the symptoms of an increasingly unequal economy and society should be loaded on to its schools – which is presumably why some of his policy prescriptions have come out looking so odd. The report has been trailed by headlines suggesting that affluent parents at “popular” state schools should be charged fees of up to £20,000: a baffling idea that would not just lead to a huge middle-class revolt – “we’ve paid our taxes”, they would shout, and they’d be right – but also create yet another tier in the English school system, and push plenty of schools even further towards the margins (his idea that cash-strapped middle-class parents would take their exclusion on the chin and crowd into less “popular” schools is touchingly naive). But let’s move on: these things are much less important than the broad themes of what Seldon says, and how much they chime with the more objectionable aspects of long-standing education policy.

Two misplaced beliefs have been hanging around Whitehall for more than 15 years: that state schools have a lot to learn from fee-paying places; and that their independent counterparts might want to involve themselves in the management of public-sector institutions, so as to finally justify their charitable status. This slightly patronising dream began with a New Labour wheeze called the independent/state school partnership scheme, and it has never gone away.

Though championed even more enthusiastically by David Cameron and Gove, the drive for a rebirth of educational noblesse oblige is still not going swimmingly. Despite long pushing for private schools to get involved in state education, Adonis himself has bemoaned their reluctance. Wilshaw recently accused the independent sector of offering “crumbs … leading more to famine than feast”. Quite why institutions that exist to shore up their pupils’ advantages should bother with the lower orders is a question apparently too impolite to ask, but a couple of recent news stories highlight what a mess this branch of policy is becoming.

Dulwich College has just pulled out of its role as the sponsor of a somewhat challenging academy in Kent, with the latter’s governors acknowledging that “you need people who have a lot of maintained sector experience to actually come and work on the Isle of Sheppey” (funny, that). Meanwhile, the academy sponsored by Seldon’s own Wellington College has been the focus of coverage about nosediving GCSE results (in 2013, 37% of students got A to Cs in subjects including English and maths, as against 48% the previous year), and Seldon’s role as its executive head. According to reports last October, he reacted to noise at one assembly for 12- and 13-year-olds by “going bonkers”. You never know: if you plunge people from the private sector into state schools, they may be simply out of their depth.

Besides, beyond smaller class sizes and the comparative ease of teaching students who know that their schooling is costing a fortune and are therefore minded to behave, what exactly are the secrets that private schools can pass on? Is there really anything to be gained from the embrace of the Combined Cadet Force, boarding and old-school discipline? And if, as suggested by Seldon’s report and the educational charity the Sutton Trust, we were to push high-achieving state pupils into independent schools via some turbo-charged version of the old assisted places scheme, what exactly would it do to them?

Put another way, is the current dominion of public schoolboys going so well that it is time to widen its reach? On this score, I always think of a letter sent by an alumnus of an unnamed private school to the Guardian in 2011. “As a escapee from one such institution,” he wrote, “my experience is that the ethos … instilled largely consists of overweening arrogance, a total inability to admit errors and a feeling of innate superiority to the rest of the population, leading to such joyous public-school-led adventures as the Iraq war and the banking crisis.” Recent studies, let’s not forget, have conclusively proved that if you compare state-educated university students to their privately schooled counterparts with similar A-levels and GCSEs, the former outperform the latter. That seems to torpedo the Seldon-Gove-Cameron consensus, but there we are.

As evidenced by recent headlines sparked by John Major, there is a fashionable establishment habit of decrying the gap between the state and independent sectors, while never willing the means to effectively end it. Yes, the distant leftie dream of abolishing private schools is a non-starter; but in addition to finally ending their charitable status, other moves might just as well tackle the basic problem.

Russell Group universities might divide up their places up according to the national ratio of pupils in the private and public sectors so that at least 93% of them would go to state school applicants, with no more than 7% to people from fee-paying institutions.

At the same time, as Alan Milburn has suggested in his somewhat oxymoronic role as the government’s “social mobility tsar”, internships might be made subject to same rules as the wider labour market – or, going further, we could establish a catch-all national internship service, so work experience was not just divided much more equitably, but also seen to be so. There would be squeals from the rightwing press and the private-school lobby, but so what? Any Labour fainthearts might recall that even Tony Blair used to talk about the many rather than the few.

You may have noticed one development that goes straight to the heart of all this. By way of underlining their interest in the great unwashed, independent schools have been hugely increasing fees, to the point that even affluent middle-class parents can’t afford them. The average boarding school now charges £27,600 a year. Therein, amid a great cloud of self-serving cant, lies proof of what too few people will admit: private education is part of the problem, not the solution.

• The standfirst of this article was amended on 20 January to more accurately reflect the views expressed by the writer

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It’s not about the money: what Ed Miliband and David Cameron can learn from Nigel Farage | John Harris

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

Others should follow Ukip’s lead, confronting the tyranny of the market to address the issues people really care about

As Tony Blair might once have put it: immigration, immigration, immigration. David Cameron wants to withdraw child benefit from EU migrants. Labour has come up with a seemingly impossible proposal to restrict people travelling around Europe in search of work. The vice-president of the European commission warns that an overheated debate is in danger of “destroying the future” of the UK, which cleverly has the effect of raising the temperature even more.

Meanwhile, Nigel Farage makes his most significant contribution to British politics yet. On Tuesday, he was on Radio 4’s Today programme, echoing something he had already said to Nick Robinson, in the latter’s BBC2 programme, The Truth About Immigration: “There are some things that matter more than money.” Around a minute into his interview, there it was again: “If you said to me, do you want to see another 5 million people come to Britain, and if that happened we would all be slightly richer, I would say, do you know what? I would rather we were not slightly richer … I do think the social side of this matters more than the pure market economics.”

That same morning, I spoke to one of the more switched-on members of the shadow cabinet. “Who was the last front-rank politician you heard confronting the tyranny of the market in that way?” he said. “He’s flipped the political conversation. He’s hit the switch.”

One of the biggest political openings for Farage is easily explained. Both main parties do not think to question the supremacy of supposed growth and the idea that national “prosperity” must be king. Labour politicians have either bought this idea, or dare not depart from it for fear of being called out as anti-business. The Tories, who might once have sounded a more nuanced voice on the basis of conservatism (remember that?), now talk maniacally about the necessity of Britain giving its all in what they call the “global race”.

Real people, by contrast, care more about their jobs, where they live, and the fuzzy stuff of security, happiness and a sense of belonging. Politicians affect to understand, but mostly don’t. Particularly on the left, to borrow a line from Drew Westen’s book The Political Brain, too many people “thrive on policy debates, arguments, statistics, and getting the facts right”. A shared fixation with growth figures and national competitiveness is of a piece: more human considerations must be set to one side, lest we fall even further behind the Chinese.

Ukip’s appeal has always cut straight through that. Self-evidently, leaving the EU and drastically cutting immigration are not ideas grounded in economics: they are cultural and emotional, even if the party seemed bashful about admitting as much, due to its Thatcherite values (symbolised by Farage’s background as a commodities trader). In that sense, up until this week, it was not quite right to characterise them as populists: they seemed too in thrall to the free market. Now, though, Farage seems to be on manoeuvres.

His latest pronouncement highlights a huge hole in our politics – indeed, you could apply it to no end of issues, some of which would not be to Ukip’s taste. Would you like Britain to bin all the “green crap” so that GDP might go up a bit? Cue the Farage gambit: “Do you know what? On that basis, I would rather we were not slightly richer.” What do you think of the countryside being fracked? Ditto. How about a high-speed rail line ploughing through rural England? The same. Aside from Ukip, the only other party I can imagine sounding such notes is the Greens, which says something about the extent to which Farage threatens to have this territory largely to himself.

Those who believe in the free movement of people should now understand what they have to do: stop yakking on about such abstract matters as migrants’ net contributions to the economy, and start to talk about what people from overseas bring to the communities where they live (while, if at all possible, also acknowledging that large-scale immigration is unavoidably disruptive and disorientating, something too often missed). As for Ukip, we should also understand that there is now officially much more to its appeal than all that useless talk about Enoch Powell.

That doesn’t mean much of their campaigning isn’t ugly, or that their chief effect on the Conservative party hasn’t been to push it towards a new kind of nastiness. But as my shadow cabinet contact said, a switch has been hit, by a party leader whose crafty sense of what politics is lacking gets ever sharper – and the consequences could be explosive.

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The left is too silent on the clunking fist of state power | John Harris

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

Government’s role is vital, but an arrogant and centralised state is as big a problem as the out-of-control market

This will be the year of the intrusive, oppressive state. Obviously, this will not much distinguish it from 2013, 2012 or 2011. But still: fundamental issues of government and its reach into our lives are now bubbling away as never before, and may well reach boiling point over the next 12 months.

The fallout from Edward Snowden’s revelations goes on: in the US, the latest stories concern a National Security Agency programme aimed at breaking all forms of digital encryption, while the debate about legislating to curtail surveillance powers rages. Here, by contrast, there is something jaw-dropping about how little the three main UK parties have to say. Britain has blazed a trail for the collection of enormous amounts of personal data, with a blase attitude proving that the prospect of any oversight has been far from the thoughts of those in charge (witness a choice bit of advice for GCHQ staff from a memo about its Tempora programme: “You are in an enviable position – have fun and make the most of it”). But aside from such Lib Dems as Julien Huppert and Vince Cable, and the Conservatives’ David Davis and Dominic Raab, who speaks out?

Meanwhile, the modern Conservative party evidently wants to accelerate Britain’s progress towards being a country of spot checks and roving billboards instructing illicit migrants to hand themselves in, and the rest of us to grass them up. Large parts of the welfare state increasingly look not like a safety net, but a mess of traps, intended to enforce complete obedience under pain of destitution. Doctors, nurses and teachers work to central diktat as never before. And from the role of private firms in our penal and borders system to the ties that bind the internet’s corporate providers to government (something at the heart of the storm over data collection, and now the government’s seemingly pernicious “porn filter”), it is increasingly hard to tell where government ends and the private realm begins: what blurs the two is effectively a shadow state, which gets bigger and bigger.]

The political right has big problems here: it uses the rhetoric of small government but enforces its opposite. But so too does the left. Far too many on my side of politics still have their heads in the sand, holding on to a ragbag of notions that now bears no serious examination: that so-called civil liberties should always come a distant second to schools, hospitals and such like; that the centralised, snooping, target-driven state can be our friend, so long as it can be once again captured by Labour and put to the correct uses; and that from the NHS to the BBC, so long as giant and unwieldy institutions can be kept away from the private market, all will be well.

At the heart of all this is an attachment to the achievements of the Labour government of 1945-51, and a stifling myth it is time we buried. Sorry to Ken Loach and everyone else who still gets dewy eyed at the mention of Attlee, Bevan and the rest, but 1945 was the high point of a kind of statecraft that has little to teach us today. (There may be a few lessons to be learned about how to amass a coalition of support behind a political project, and the necessity of working outside a single party. But in a modern context, the idea of socialism handed out from the centre and the sound of dropped bedpans in Tredegar reverberating around Westminster is absurd.) Yet its legacy is still here, across the left spectrum, in the politics that reduces socialism to higher taxation and bigger government; that screams “nationalise it” when corporate interest messes up and “ban it” when it encounters something it doesn’t like. It reeks of the 20th century, when the world outside is speeding somewhere else entirely.

If you doubt this, consider what the essential functions of the modern state look like to any politicised person under 30. The state comes to the rescue of banks while snatching away benefits. It strides into sovereign countries, and commits serial human rights abuses. It subjects doctors, nurses and teachers to ludicrous targets. It watches us constantly via CCTV, and hacks our email and phone data. It farms out some of its dirtiest business to private firms. This is not a vision of modern government invented by the current lot: in Britain, it decisively came to life thanks to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Whether knowingly or not, they demonstrated an essential modern truth: that contrary to the vanities of the “free market”, neoliberal capitalism needs the big centralised state to clear its way and enforce its insanities.

In December last year, I closely followed an upsurge of protest on university campuses across the UK, and spoke to some of the young people involved. They were socialists, to all intents and purposes: they wanted a more equal society, and an education system oriented around something higher than the idea of maximising their earning potential. But they had no illusions about how much of their focus was on the clunking fist of state power: their recurrent cry was “Cops off campus”, and they testified to such ingrained parts of modern university life as spot checks on foreign students by police and Border Agency personnel, and the bonds that tied the cops to private security contractors. They were all experts on the surveillance state. Moreover, they are part of a generation whose meetings have no platform speakers, who insist the world should take on the horizontal characteristics of social media. The big state, whatever purposes it is put to, is anathema to them.

In orthodox politics there are occasional flashes of recognition of how much we need to tame, and then radically remodel, government. Localism, when it actually amounts to something coherent, is part of the noise. So is (was?) the big society, and the radical ideas about the devolution of power that Jon Cruddas is trying to bring to the Labour party. If you want a flavour of the journeys that need to be taken, have a look at Compass: once broadly aligned with the Brownite wing of Labour but now a breeding ground for a new kind of creative, non-hierarchical, left politics. You know the signs of something different when you see them: if you’re in the right company, people talk passionately about housing co-operatives, autonomous local poverty projects and sustainability initiatives, and credit unions. They want the revival of local councils. Crucially, they also argue for what’s missing from the left’s agenda: a cutting down of the surveillance state, exacting oversight of the security services, and strict limits on data collection.

None of this is an argument for anarchism or the stupid form of Tory politics which believes that so long as public spending can be pushed below a certain share of GDP, liberty will be assured. It is not intended to overlook what only the state can do: redistribute income; confront corporate power; forge the international agreements we need to fight everything from climate change to corporate tax avoidance. But there is no argument for extending those truths into the kind of boundless leviathan that Britain has ended up with. The truth is that the arrogant, centralised state is as much of a problem as the out-of-control market, and the dominion of one is symbiotically related to the tyranny of the other. From that, all else follows. The future politics of the left will either be pluralist, localist and libertarian, or it will shrivel.

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