Miliband and Gove and the future of British education

Do Miliband’s ideas have the power to change Britain? His speech at the Hugo Young Lecture is part a debate about social inequality in Britain, the core theme of Miliband’s speech is devolution; power should be decentralised from Whitehall and the given to the people – the creation of a people-powered public service is the new way forward. Parents will have the autonomy to sack headteachers if schools are performing poorly, and patients will able to make changes to their local NHS – these are just two of his ideas. Miliband has got a bit carried away with this; it sounds great on paper, giving autonomy to the people, but, realistically, will taxpayers want to spend their time playing the role of government? Will this solve problems in the NHS and schools?  As a measure it is limited, as only certain groups in society will exercise their rights. It is more of a side measure than a central one.

Miliband is right about equality and tolerance should be the guiding principles of our society. The awful thing is that in Britain we are used to this inequality, and it is hard to imagine what it would feel like without it. We all witness it day in, day out. A few years ago, working at a youth charity, I visited a high number of schools across Birmingham. I was shocked to see the difference in each neighbourhood; in the middle-class white areas, students were privileged and had plenty of opportunities, whereas in ghettoised predominantly Muslim-populated areas, schools were in bad condition and students were disengaged. This is largely due to economic reasons, such as poverty and lack of employment. The young people in these areas face different life-chances which will ultimately shape their future income and employment opportunities, and hence their quality of life. It’s important to note that difference is inevitable, as there will always be richer and poorer classes. But what can we do to make people’s life chances fairer?

Education is the greatest tool for creating social change. Miliband’s proposal to introduce emergency call-in powers for parents is radical, but the problem of failing schools cannot be greatly helped by the intervention of parents. Even if this policy is implemented, it will be more favourable for middle class parents as there is generally a stronger emphasis on education within the middle classes. They are more likely to be well-educated, more likely to invest in their child’s education with private tuition and extra-curricular activities, and more likely to challenge schools if they are dissatisfied. For this reason, I do not think Miliband’s idea of a people-powered education system is going to make a significant impact on all groups across society.

The deeper social and cultural problems need to be understood first in our education system: the teacher quality, the school management and pupil engagement.  Gove recognises these problems, but his policies are far too extreme. He is obsessed with global comparisons of education systems and chasing league tables and his definition of a good education is flawed.

I agree, higher standards are needed, but looking to East Asian education systems and adopting rote-learning methods is harmful. Several friends I have spoken to in China tell me how pressuring it is, and how they hated reciting and learning endless pieces of information, by the end of which they have learned little other than isolated ‘facts’. This system treats individuals like mindless robots absorbing information that is put in front of them. Sadly our brains don’t work in this way. And, Gove is planning to remove one of the greatest things about our education system: creativity. By doing this he is going to damage a future generation of thinkers, writers and artists who are important for change in Britain today.  What is more important is to have better quality teachers, who are intelligent, inspiring models who can teach the younger generation to dream and hope.

Miliband and Gove are keen to shape the future of Britain, but both swing too far to extremes. Perhaps they can learn from one another, and realise that a large part of this problem is to do with, as Adam Curtis sees as the lack of connectedness in the world we are living in – the lack of innovation, an increasing sense of isolation, and the pervasive sense of not knowing what is going on in the world. Communities need to engage with one another, and education should inspire us to be whole beings, rich of life and meaning.

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