Odds are you know, by now, that Labour has announced its big policy to counter the coalition’s free schools project. It’s received plenty of attention, much of it negative, so much so that ResPublica founder Phillip Blond has had to defend the research in the Guardian this afternoon.
The policy is dangerous and misguided.
The ResPublica report (found here) isn’t that long, and I read it this afternoon. I’ll try to break it down as much as possible.
The foreword contains the following quote:
This proposal seeks to address the failure of this great nation’s Social Contract between those who have and those who have not, it seeks to make small gains against the overwhelming tide of indifference and it seeks to reinforces [sic] that which works… This proposal is about continued public service, an approach not alien to the Armed Forces and attends to a clear and present social danger which if left will challenge the very fabric of civil society.
The purpose of the report is clear. These military academies are for poor kids – the introduction suggests:
The schools should be set up in each of the ten RFCA regions in England and Wales and located in those regions in areas with the greatest concentration of young people who are NEET (not in employment, education or training) or at risk of becoming NEET.
The justification for this focus is the riots that occurred in England in 2011. Again, quoting from the introduction:
Our proposal for a new model of schooling offers one policy solution to the social ills that became manifest at the time of the riots. Looking at the educational background of the young people who took part in the riots, two-thirds were classed as having some form of special educational need (compared to 21% for the national average); more than a third had been excluded from school during 2009-10.
Those people who took part in the riots, in other words, were not served well under the current education system. I recently went through that same system, and it is one that rewards rote-learning, discourages creative thinking and is, for the most part, dictatorial rather than interactive. One of my secondary school teachers asked our class (rhetorically, of course), “Look, do you want to learn about the subject, or do you want to pass the exam?” as though it was a simple binary choice. Introducing more discipline and longer school days with “obligatory extra-curricular hours [for] sporting and community activities” will not help kids already struggling. I don’t agree with everything in this RSA lecture from Sir Ken Robinson, but it raises very interesting points. The ResPublica green paper does home in on a very real problem, namely that “tens of thousands of our young people are becoming hopelessly trapped by the lack of opportunity” – the problem for the educational establishment is that teenagers know this. Sir Ken notes,
When we [his generation] went to school, we were kept there with a story, which was that if you worked hard and did well… you would have a job.”
This is no longer the case. With youth unemployment in the UK above 20% this March (and worse in other parts of Europe, particularly the PIIGS countries), young people have realised that their future is bleak whether they try hard in school or not. One word crops up throughout the report – “aspiration.” It makes 8 appearances in the short 15 page document, but seems to restrict the aspirations of working class kids to joining the army, or at least subscribing to some vaguely defined “military ethos.”
The pivotal logical basis of the report is found across pages 7 and 8.
We believe that the riots were an expression of an economic, educational and cultural failure: the failure of an excessively unequal society, riddled with asset poverty and debt serfdom, welfare dependency and growing youth unemployment… In many ways, the riots were a ‘pay-off’ of a rentier state that has concentrated wealth and stripped millions of ordinary Britons of their capital, denying them a path to assets, ownership and trade. The share of liquid wealth for the bottom 50% of the population had fallen to 1% in 2003, eroding the path to prosperity for those at the bottom. Not surprisingly given these shocking figures, an O.E.C.D. survey in 2010 found that Britain has the highest correlation between parental income and outcomes for children, and therefore the lowest rate of social mobility in the developed world.
Anyone who’s ever played Monopoly can tell you that this is what happens when you allow rentiers to accumulate wealth unchecked. The problem, then, is Capitalism. Or, to use another term, it’s greed. Challenging this will see a change – not producing teenagers with “high levels of respect for authority” or “heightened aspirations”, whatever those may be.
General Lord Dannatt, former head of the army, asked recently, “given that the military has the unique opportunity to educate its own into the importance of a proper moral understanding – then perhaps the military community may have a wider contribution that it can make to the Nation?” – What proper moral understanding is this? What particular morals dictate the conduct of soldiers? None are suggested in the paper. The word “ethos” also appears 8 times in the report, but no concrete claims are made about this mythical ethos of the armed forces which can somehow benefit wider society.
What do the reforms boil down to? Well, basically, they say what teenagers need is discipline (not choice or actual meaningful prospects), a “military ethos” (which could mean quite literally anything you want it to) and that joining the armed forces is something poor kids should “aspire” to – they should look forward to being sent to die grisly deaths in the desert for rich people back home to make fistfuls of dollars.
This isn’t a vision for the future, it’s a fascist nightmare, and a policy Labour should never have touched with a bargepole.