Against faith schools

There is much in current education policy that I do not like. My list would include selection at eleven, academies, the scrapping of support via the EMA. Perhaps highest on my list would be segregation by faith.

Schooling is not just about exam results, it should also be about equipping students for life. An important part of this must be the ability to rub along with your fellow man (or woman) regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, politics, or faith.

I realise that faith schools rarely cater for one faith and that a masquerade is perpetrated by parents keen to see their progeny enjoying what they see as a superior education. However, faith schools are designed as a barrier to inclusion, and fortress against those of other creeds (and non-creeds).

Sticking to one’s own faith for company does much to hinder inquiry and is designed to keep the faithful strong in the faith of choice. However, it has the miserable side-effect of promoting xenophobia. When not exposed to the cornucopia of ideas that exist in the real world there must develop a most weird worldview, a sort of Truman Show.

Schools should be a mirror of the community that they inhabit, and yes this means including those with unsatisfactory behaviour patterns. This does not mean that bad behaviour should not be challenged, nor does it mean that those of ability should be held back by those less skilled. It also does not mean that the faiths should not be taught and explored.

The Accord Coalition also believes in children learning together. They challenge the creation of state funded religious schools, an endeavour I am pleased to support; you can too.

In memorium: Ambition

In attempting to boil down my socialism to its basics I describe it as a belief in fairness and equality. Doubtless my Conservative friends would ascribe similar characteristics to their beliefs, and nuance it with the conflict between the free market and a command economy, between a large state and provision supplied by the private sector. Such distinctions between the two important political arguments have become blurred. The old clause four was not scrapped just to make the party look modern; a democratic socialist party was never going to go for the common ownership of production, distribution, and exchange.

The fairness and equality agenda lays behind the anti-discrimination legislation, women and gay rights, the attack on the democratic deficit. It also was the driver behind the push for full employment and the opening up of education to a wider audience. The target of 50% attending university was as much about participation as it was about equipping our young for the challenges of the new century.

The landscape for young people today looks pretty grim. Opportunities in further education are vastly better than during the 1970s when I was at school, but the prospect of the horrendous debt that will accompany it will be a millstone. I wonder how mortgage applications will be treated for those saddled with repaying tuition fees and other costs once graduation has been achieved. That house prices are something like eleven times the average wage makes the dream of home ownership problematical at best.

The unavailability of work is worse. I can recall a time when the total jobless at a million was viewed as a national disaster; now that number has been matched just by the young. And whilst it may be just a statistic for the rich and cossetted, the reality is that it affects us all. The summer riots are but one by-product; watch crime figures, drug dependency and suicide rates climb unless that Plan B is unveiled.

What young people are witnessing is, as Johnny Rotten so poetically put, “no future”. The party of aspiration may still make being super-rich even more attractive, but for many ordinary people the blank canvass that is the future has no prospect of paint being applied. If equality means anything it means turning aspiration into ambition.

Without full employment and affordable and accessible education there is no prospect for ambition to grow. Eighteen months in and this Conservative Government has already trashed the lives of many young people. The next Labour Government will have much to repair, although I fear that much like the 1980s we will be faced with a lost generation.

Join the Green Schools Revolution

My latest press release can be enjoyed here – Southend Labour calls for schools to join Green Revolution

Given my commitment to green issues and the co-operative movement this item will surprise no-one.

Entrenching privilege

Never mind that the fast tracking of university access for the wealthy has been vetoed, the significant thing is that this was even suggested in the first place. It is a big clue as to the mindset of those who currently govern us – a party whose raison d’être is to protect the interests of the super-rich.

I have often had to explain why I am a socialist, and even what socialism means nowadays. The short explanation refers to fairness and equality, although this language is also used by our opponents. However, beyond rhetoric it is delivery and intention that matters.

This does not mean I am anti-money (although I would not describe myself as intensely relaxed about the filthy rich). I am happy with a meritocracy, a society where those who work hard are rewarded. My deviation from the right is that I would not see those less fortunate flounder without the helping hand of a caring welfare state. Yes, I would help the lazy, but I do stress that I am unhappy with being on benefits as a lifestyle choice. The indigent should not be rewarded, but neither should they starve. This government, this Tory government, is attacking the benefits system, using the deficit as an excuse; a banking crisis to be fixed by the vulnerable and the unlucky.

However, I am particularly worked up over education and where this government is going on this issue. A fair, egalitarian society that truly rewards those who work hard must also be a society of equality of opportunity. Nowhere is this better achieved than in the education system. Or it should be.

Access for all to a good quality education, all the way through to adulthood and further education is the only way we can achieve true fairness for all. One’s education maps out life-choices, enables choice, and must be a thing chosen. Education should not be limited by money.

Money is increasingly becoming a driver for the type and quality of education one gets. It was ever so, except that Labour Governments made great strides in eradicating the wealth factor.

The Educational Maintenance Allowance which encouraged many poor people to study for their A levels, students fees at an affordable level, academies introduced to save failing schools, re-building and refurbishing every school (which Labour were on target to achieve until BSF funding was withdrawn last year), the introduction of comprehensive education – all significant factors in raising standards and seeing more young people than ever in colleges and universities.

Tuition fees that are trebled are going to discourage those from low and middle-income backgrounds. EMA, whilst imperfect, did make a real difference to some households. Fixing leaky roofs and installing computers etc did make every school a better place.

Whilst plans for the rich to side-track university entrance criteria via their largesse has been scuppered, that this can be floated at a time when ordinary working families will be questioning whether their sons and daughters should go at all is truly sickening.

Awareness

I attended a political awareness day at Westcliff High School for Girls. I did this last year and impressed them enough for them to invite me back.

Representatives of a number of local parties were present, and we were split up so there was no debate amongst us. I was accompanied by Rochford candidate Rob Brown, a young, enthusiastic and knowledgeable university economics student. We talked informally to a group of students about what the Labour Party stands for. I also gave them a couple of minutes of my thoughts on the AV referendum.

I do not think many local schools have this type of event, which I think is a shame. Politics affects almost all aspects of modern life and schools with sixth forms will have pupils at or near voting age. Hearing the representatives from local parties gives them the chance to make an informed choice.

Apparently, last year they held a mock general election after my visit (accompanied that time by Kevin Bonavia) which Labour won. Not bad in an area that is a Tory stronghold. I was told that Labour were leading in allegiances this year – if I find out this year’s result I will put it up (even if we lose).

Equality of opportunity is about equality of education

I had a discussion with a Tory during the recent election campaign where he tried to summarize our political differences. “I am for equality of opportunity” said he, “whereas socialists are for equality of outcome”.

I disagreed. I am most definitely for equality of opportunity, and nowhere is this more evident than in my attitude to education.

I oppose selective education, I oppose educational apartheid. I oppose anything which does not treat all children equally.

To select on the basis of an unscientific test at eleven years of age is not only to squander the potential of more than two-thirds of children, it is actually about nothing more than elitism. To pretend that it is about giving the brightest children a chance to really stretch their talents ignores the coaching that goes on in order to get some kids past the pass mark.

It also misses a vital part of education that is not about qualifications and facts stored, but about equipping young people for the future. Society is made up of all sorts of people, from various backgrounds, with differing abilities, and attitudes. Children should mix with the good and the bad, the naughty and nice, the smart and not so smart, the fit and the fat, from across faiths, creeds, races, and ideologies. To do otherwise is to ill-equip them.

But it is the inculcating them with the elitist credo that really angers me. Of course children should believe they are special, but they should not look down on others, nor be convinced of their own superiority.

Creating ‘special’ schools, whether that be with entrance exams, or faith-based, or academies, also condemns many kids to an unfit lifestyle and all that brings. The curse of league tables now means that many children travel long distances to go to that ‘better’ school, rather than using shank’s pony and travelling to the nearest.

And this Big Society, this lack of community that is currently exercising politicians, surely means supporting your local educational establishment.

Academies are wrong, wrong, wrong, and for a better reason than I can provide go here.

GCSEs

GCSEs – Labour’s record

  1997 2008 2009
GCSE passes at A* or A 13.8% 20.7% 21.6%
GCSE passes at A*-C 52.6% 65.7% 67.1%
English A*-C pass rate 54.8% 62.9% 62.7%
Maths A*-C pass rate 47.1% 56.3% 57.2%
15 year olds achieving five or more good GCSEs (A*-C) 45.1% 64.8% n/a*
15 year olds achieving five or more good GCSEs (A*-C) including in English & Maths 35.6% 47.3% n/a*
Number of schools where less than 30% of pupils achieve five or more good GCSEs (A*-C) including English & Maths 1610 (more than half of schools) 440 n/a*
(Expected to fall to around 280 this year, on track to zero by 2011)

* These figures will be published in January 2010

Education, education, education

This week saw some wonderful results for all our hard-working students. I cannot understand why some commentators want to talk them down – this envy and churlishness is unbecoming. I think the figures are marvellous and a reason to celebrate. I am heartened as sometimes all you hear is about how bad our youth are – clearly only true for a minority.

Here are some numbers that make for very pleasant reading:

• The UK 2009 A Level and AS results (covering England, Wales and Northern Ireland) show:

o There was a 2.3% increase in entries at A Level (846,977 compared to 827,737 in 2008) and 4.3% at AS Level (1,177,018 compared to 1,128,150 in 2008) this year

o A huge rise (12.2%) in the numbers taking mathematics A Levels, 72,475 entries compared to 64,593 in 2008.

o Further maths was also up by 15.2% to 10,473 (compared to 9,091 in 2008). At AS Level Further Maths has gone up 47.2% to 13,164 (compared to 8,945 in 2008.)

o In sciences – biology entrance was down 0.9%, chemistry up 1.9% and physics up 4.8% in 2008.

o English was the most popular A Level, with 91,815 (10.8% of candidates) taking it. This was followed by maths (72,475 or 8.5%) and biology (56,010 or 6.6%)

o A rise in the overall pass rate (A-E) from 97.2% in 2008 to 97.5% at A Level this year.

o At AS Level, the pass rate has dropped slightly from 88.2% to 88.1%

o A rise in the proportion of A grades awarded at A Level from 25.9% in 2008 to 26.7% this year.

• The latest results mean that there has been a 9.9 percentage point rise in the pass rate at A Level since 1997 (from 87.6% to 97.5%).

A comprehensive future

For those interested in ending the iniquitous selective education system still found in some parts of the country, here is a useful organisation: http://www.comprehensivefuture.org.uk/support.htm

Their aims seem fair enough:

Comprehensive Future’s aim is a comprehensive secondary school system throughout England, with fair admissions criteria to all publicly funded schools, guaranteeing an equal chance to all children and an end to selection by ability and aptitude.