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Editorial: Labour's addiction to a failed past undermines its education policy

LABOUR’S justified criticism of the Tories for spreading confusion through the schools system is undermined by the stultifying lack of ambition and imagination we have grown used to from Keir Starmer’s team.

The disruption caused by lockdowns has forced changes in some sectors of the economy that call into question many of the assumptions behind longstanding policies.

Instead of reflecting on these and working out how to “build back better” by addressing structural injustices thrown into relief by Covid, the political class regards the whole experience as a “pause” button after which the pre-pandemic normal must be reconstituted piece by piece.

It is this determination not to learn lessons that made the Conservatives stop their ears to proposals from teachers and their unions on how to resume safe learning at various stages of the crisis.

Repurposing buildings not in use for schooling and a teacher recruitment drive to facilitate smaller class sizes were obvious ways to make classroom learning safer in the context of an infectious virus — but the former could have set a precedent that private property can be directed to serve the public interest, and the latter would have drawn out the benefits for children of greater investment in education, so neither was a runner. 

Instead of acknowledging teachers’ advice the government used its friends in the media to run successive smear campaigns indicating teachers were trying to shirk work — campaigns the Labour Party was complicit in through its own refusal to stand by teachers.

As the National Education Union (NEU’s) Mary Bousted has observed, greater parental supervision of the schooling process required by home learning has also opened eyes to deep flaws in the curriculum, from “intimidating” models used to teach maths, an approach to English teaching that novelist Erin Kelley asserts makes “language itself ... just horrible to children” and a prescriptive attitude to what knowledge must be “downloaded” by students for regurgitation later which “is so reduced and simplified as to be plain wrong.”

The source of much of this lies in the exam-factory character of British schools, imposed by decades of Tory and New Labour policy in accordance with the principles of the Global Education Reform Movement (the apt acronym Germ expressing the way it has infected multiple education systems).

The Germ is “the manifestation of neoliberalism in education,” according to another leading NEU activist, Gawain Little, asserting that “only a competitive, market approach, with the attendant standardisation and testing regime, can improve education systems.”

British children are now some of the most tested in the world, and learning to the test precludes learning strategies involving enquiry, investigation or teamwork. The result is to place huge stress on young people while giving them an education many universities and employers say does not equip them for what comes next.

The whole process is rendered worse still by an examination system based on norm-referencing rather than criterion-referencing — that is, in which grades are not allocated with reference to meeting a defined standard (in the way that your driving test result is based on whether you have demonstrated an ability to drive) but with reference to each other to “ration educational qualifications [and] stratify the workforce,” in the words of education campaigner Melissa Benn.

Though the furore over the government’s bid to deploy an algorithm to artificially recreate these divisions offered an opportunity to challenge a fundamentally flawed system, Labour hasn’t taken it — merely recommending that 2022 grade distribution be “pegged” to 2020.

Given the way the Blairite zombies of the parliamentary party are trying to salvage the doctrine of humanitarian intervention from the smoking ruins of the 20-year war on Afghanistan, it is unsurprising that they show an equal attachment to other discredited neoliberal nostrums.

For all Starmer says he wants to “win the future,” his whole operation is a bid to recreate the past.

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