Thinking Bigger

Roger Titcombe's picture
The Guardian of 10 August featured an important article by Andy Burnham. As usual the mainstream media have managed to miss its true significance.

At last here is a public statement by a Labour Shadow Minister that can give some hope to those of us that believe that the comprehensive education model is the soundest and most cost effective basis for providing an excellent education system for all of our children regardless of ability and where they live.

The following is perhaps the key paragraph from the interview given to the Guardian.

"He (Andy Burnham) has no problem naming the biggest policy mistakes he thinks the last Labour government made. For him, the worst will always be its failure to champion comprehensive education. "With every bone in my body I believe in comprehensive education. I look back to that thing when we were sort of doing it down … " and the sentence ends with a wince. "Let's put it this way, I wasn't cheerleading for academies." He wishes Labour hadn't neglected the 50% of pupils who would never go to university – "What about them? What about their aspirations? That was something we didn't get right, and we should have" – and he bitterly regrets allowing the private sector to penetrate the NHS so deeply."

I am not assuming that other readers and contributors to this website share my politics, however it is clear to me that the only hope of stemming the relentless march of privatisation of our education and health services lies in a Labour government, but that hope has glimmered very dimly since the Conservatives failed to win the last general election but are nonetheless implementing the most destructive programme of privatising our public services ever devised, despite having no parliamentary majority and no mandate.

Other contributors here have argued strongly that our education service should be managed rationally, on the basis of evidence, by qualified and experienced professionals institutionally insulated from party politics and the madcap educational obsessions of ignorant politicians that think it is all about their personal interpretation of common sense. See my posts here and here.

I agree with the aim of depoliticising and calming the education system but there has to an implicit 'constitutional' framework that binds those charged with managing it. This is where Andy Burnham again makes an important contribution. The essence of such a framework must be the rejection of privatisation. This is how he puts it.

"It's like a genie out of the bottle thing, isn't it? You can let it out so far, but once the market takes a hold on the system it will destroy what's precious about it. We had been building a policy that said it doesn't matter who provides healthcare as long as it's free at the point of delivery. But I'm saying it does matter." He recalls Blair making him minister for communicating NHS reform – which sounds like something Private Eye made up – and sending him off around the country to drum up support from NHS staff for health reforms. But Burnham was appalled to discover that they "had picked up the message from us that private equals good, public equals bad. And I felt, well, that's not what I believe at all. I believe in the public NHS." He looks suddenly almost bashful, adding, "I know politicians always say things like this, but I am passionate about the NHS."

Labour needs to be equally passionate about the comprehensive school system. It needs to resurrect Blair's Rapid Response Unit (RRU) and invest some energy into rebutting the flood of false, unevidenced but cleverly populist propaganda that pours from the DfE, where his Special Advisors work tirelessly at ways to undermine public confidence in the comprehensive system.

I will conclude by anticipating the ferocity of the neo-liberal's well trained RRU. This must remain a free and uncensored forum for the expression of arguments from all parts of the political spectrum. It is not difficult to counter the more swivel-eyed of these that come from what appear to be different posters sharing an identical ideological theme. However I suspect a strategy that is more about sabotage than contributing to a debate. Their tactic appears to be to try to provoke endless, unproductive arguments with the intention of giving the impression that they are just reflecting one half of a national debate. When this fails, personal attacks and insults usually follow. This can have the intended effect of smothering the really useful, informed debate that this forum is so good at. I intend to provide just one rebuttal to far-right nonsense and ignore any subsequent provocations designed to lead nowhere useful.
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