Below are the outline notes of a paper I gave at the Blue Labour conference at the University of Nottingham yesterday, on what Blue Labour can offer education.
For those who asked for copies – hope this helps!
The first area Blue Labour might look to challenge contemporary orthodoxy can be summed up with the simple question: ‘what do we educate our children for?’
It seems straightforward, perhaps tedious, but I’d argue that for too long we have transformed that question and actually answer a subtly different one that can more accurately be rendered ‘for whom do we educate our children?’
The shift is slight, but telling – if the first suggests inherent virtue, then the latter points toward an outside demand. And once we define education through the service of an outside demand, we shape its offer to better support our preferred outcomes in relation to that demand.
It is in this spirit that Labour have for too long bought into an error. An understandable, perhaps even noble error, but an error nonetheless.
They have bought into the idea that our children are split into two types, the academic and the non-academic. In so doing, we have tacitly supported the notion of vocational training not as a good in itself, but actually as a good for kids who are deemed to be non-academic.
The corollary has been the idea that for everybody else, only an academic pathway was legitimate, one that followed naturally to completion of a degree. The natural consequence was an excess stress on degree level education, deemed good in so far as it services our service economy.
In other words, we submitted education to the demands of the market, and in so doing segregated our children according to which aspect of that market they might service. And you can be sure that this has influenced what we teach our kids and how we assess its delivery.
This has nudged schools and society toward a similar segregation, reinforcing a subtle denigration of the very socio-cultural classes with whom Labour traditionally stood shoulder to shoulder. The contribution of those in the vocational is less valued than it might be, even despite frequent protestations otherwise, because we have accepted the notion that the vocational is the other side of the coin to the academic, which is at any rate the more desirable.
Put frankly, this stinks.
Yet one can see where it comes from. The romantic ideal of hands-on work is replete with core ideas of relationships, reciprocity, contribution – but also, and importantly, with pride and dignity in work. And rightly so. Yet as a movement our stress on vocational schooling seems too often to have been less a recognition of skill and production as a virtue in the pursuit of the good life, and instead the acceptance of the pernicious idea that our workers cannot also be educated – or at least not in an academic sense.
In other words, we have given ownership of the educated to the service economy, when we should instead be claiming it back, for all.
But Blue Labour’s challenge of orthodoxy doesn’t have to stop there. With its stress on rootedness and place, it can also challenge this omnipresent fad of the professionally concerned: ‘social mobility.’
Put simply, it has become a fashion for every change in education to be justified with a hand-wringing appeal to social mobility. It must be said Govian revolutionaries are particularly good at this, and very much resemble the liberal left when they do so (no surprise there). Determined to display their compassionate credentials, they present their reforms as self-evidently enlightened because self-evidently about helping-poor-people-get-a-job-more-like-ours-for-a-change
Thus we’re no longer in the game of developing intellect to help human flourishing, but have instead turned education into the harlot of the markets. What use, after all, within a marketised utilitarianism, for appeals to refinement of intellect? For human flourishing? For the feeding of the soul?
Or, to quote a leading Labour figure: ‘Overcoming educational inequality is a huge challenge. However, we know the cost of doing nothing. It’s bad for social mobility and ultimately bad for Britain’s economy.’
No desperate romantic, he.
Yet the objection to social mobility is more than than the cold-fingered grip it places round the throat of any sort of expansive view of learning. For social mobility effectively means, in contemporary parlance, the ability to move away from those you know and love. With the heavy implication that failure to do so somehow represents a mournful loss of potential and indeed choosing to do so is itself a signifier of success.
Maybe I’m being unfair, and such definitions of social mobility will always exists whilst the regions are effectively supplicant to the economy of the South-East. But at the same time, we cannot scratch our heads and wonder at atomisation whilst we have spent a generation and more telling anyone with talent that the reason we educate ourselves is to walk away from who we are, or at the very least from where we are from.
Which brings me lastly to institutions.
Now I should say to start us off – I support free schools, and I think Blue Labour should too. They are the embodiment of Blue Labour insights into associative society. The left, understandably perhaps, are broadly more critical, wedded as we are to an idea of tiered central control – this does, after all, give political power to influence outcomes but also help create infrastructure to guarantee standards.
However, as a movement we ought to be comfortable with and full of admiration for those who, driven by common interest, create a learning community. Of course there are checks and brakes needed – a minimum standard and protection against the growth of conglomerates – but the idea of communities coming together to share in the education of their children also has this virtue: it reminds us of the primacy of the family and the community to self-regulate and create with the support of the state, rather than in sole dependence on it. Education done with, rather than done to.
Thus it’s a lesson in humility for the left, but also of liberty, and the importance of horizontal and vertical ties (both generational and social) that can more closely wed folk to a place and a common purpose – and therefore each other.
And when our collective futures are interdependent – and when we see that up close – then we work for one another, and not just ourselves.
This is Labour.
But… whilst there is implicit in this idea that institutions embody virtue, we must be weary of thinking that these become virtue manufacturies.
Virtue can indeed be passed through institutions, and be embodied within them, but it is a not a static product passed to an individual. It is instead something generated through the spirit and circumstance in which it was created and then supported.
In other words, the cart must follow the horse – high-minded notions of schools instilling virtue in our young must first consider the possibility whether our institutions possess virtue themselves, before then asking where this comes from (there can be little doubt our schools have lost this, which I hope we can discuss later).
Thus, when we hear about a virtuous elite reinvigorating society through some sort of Reaganite trickle-down effect, I’m more inclined to wonder if this is precisely the wrong way round – that virtue is in the bricks and mortar in the sense that it was embedded with the sweat and tears of those who toiled at its creation, and thus its ongoing legacy.
When we contracted this out to the state, we lost something important here.
This being the case, it is associative relationships – or to use the more straightforward terms of love and honour and pride and dignity – that generate virtue, and our institutions stand as testimony to them, rather than factories of it.
(For which reason you’ll gather I’m a fan of faith schools. Though I deeply fear for their future, partly because of Labour’s inability to value tradition and lived lineage over sterilised accounts of equal access to goods and services. The only thing that will preserve them will be pragmatic, rather than intellectual, support. – as I have said in the past, the government could buy all our schools if they like, but it’ll cost them a fortune and we’ll only use the money to build a whole load more.)
So, to sum up, what can Blue Labour offer education?
Well we need to be able to situate education within a healthy vision of the good life, and not just talk about the pernicious effect of coldly utilitarian systems but also to live out the consequences of that thinking too – this means a recovery of the value of the vocational, sure, but without excluding from the beauty of our cultural inheritance those whom we deem to be non-academic.
Blue Labour can also recognise the vital role of schools in forming our young and instilling within them the virtues that we have decided ought to be cherished, even where they might be rejected by wider society – but we must not think that such a thing can be contracted out over and against the family and the communities that act as both creator and guarantor of these institutions .
And lastly, Blue Labour can reject this obsession with social mobility as the judge and jury of educational success and offer an account of flourishing set within rootedness and love, rather than atomised and essentially selfish conceptions of success.