To what extent were the Labour years (1997–2010) a golden age for education? Support your answer with examples. [40 marks]
The subtle undertones in the teaching of most teachers will be of leftist political sentiment, and of nostalgia for the so-called ‘golden years’ of education. The babble from teachers at the mention of Michael Gove, or the use of the terms ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ to describe Democrats and Republicans by a history teacher who shall remain nameless, for example. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The political duopoly has as of yet failed to prove themselves in the field of education, and while the Tories get the funding massively wrong (in the opposite way to Labour), at least some of their ideas make sense.
Tony Blair, in a 2001 speech at the University of Southampton, said this: “the choice in education is between Labour investment and reform and Tory cuts and neglect.” And while his premiership’s main education failure was not in the state school system, he believed that, just as healthcare would sustain itself purely due to the presence of a Labour government, so too would education. The presence of the Labour government’s main effect on services is, obviously, the level of funding and investment.
However, there is a clear line that must be drawn between investment in, and overfunding of schools. Investment, on the one hand, should be selective, targeted, and moderate public funding provided to have a very specific effect. For example, ring-fencing a particular amount of schools’ budget in poorer areas for technical skills advancement — which would help the local economy the best and provide the most suitable education for those young people. Overfunding, on the left hand (not sorry), is the aggressive “solution” to issues in education used by Blair and, later on, Gordon Brown.
The general approach and the almost laissez-faire attitude (with regard to the detail) of Labour governments has harmed education and led to an extremely volatile situation whereby headteachers have vastly different budgets every 5–10 years due to changing government policies. And it is this, ultimately, that spurs on the leftist views of teachers — under Labour governments they enjoy an easy job with good pay for more of them, and then they are told that Conservative governments are responsible for the drop in budgets. True, but one suspects that if they didn’t, we might be doing a Greece right now.
As well as the issues with funding, Blair and then Brown, along with their education ministers (David Blunkett, Estelle Morris, Charles Clark, Ruth Kelly, Alan Johnson, Ed Balls, and John Denham) failed to provide any sort of restructuring of the education system. One of the more seemingly inconsequential decisions was the increase of the school and training age to 18 by Ed Balls as Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. However, this might have been one of the worst and most impactful policies in education for a long, long time.
It would work fine, perhaps, if apprenticeships for those who wanted to delve as close to the world of work were more readily available. Unfortunately, apprenticeships have become incredibly competitive and the majority of kids who should be entering work at 16 are forced to endure pointless training at college or sixth form for a couple more years. This not only stops the brave young people that wish to from entering employment and potentially setting up a great career for themselves, but also stifles the economy and starves the construction, IT and manufacturing companies of young employees that are integral to their survival.
Of course, there were advancements in the school system under Labour. And in no way am I suggesting that the Tories have it right either. They too are way off the mark. Under Blair’s guidance, the English school system took on a German-Finnish look with the methods of teaching and pastoral care used in schools, and there is no doubt about the brilliance of our teaching standards and methods, which largely came from these Labour governments. Perhaps I am focusing too much on the negatives, the slights of regression in the Labour years, and being overly critical of Blair. He deserves enormous credit for the leaps and bounds that the system came on during his 10 years of stewardship. But on the issue of universities, it really all begins to fall apart for Blair…
Just a few moments after the previous quote from Tony Blair’s 2001 education speech, he re-stated his party’s belief in 50% of young people progressing to university. He labelled it as “ambitious”. That it certainly was. The policy was intended to get more people from working-class backgrounds into higher education. A noble cause, surely. Unfortunately, policies never quite work out how they’re intended — and this one exemplifies that fact all too well.
By encouraging more people to go to universities, you inevitably encourage more universities to open. The issue with that is, the universities that do open are not of the same standard, and cannot provide the good education that the students deserve. This devalues the degree they receive after 3 years of study and takes away from the prestige of getting a degree. Universities such as Leeds Beckett provide a rudimentary education for students, and at the end of it, their degree is largely unimportant.
Another issue with the university boom is the extra cost to the state. The student “loan” system — which is actually just an effective version of a graduate tax — costs the taxpayer heavily. Every student receives up to £9,250 per annum to pay for their tuition. After university, they only pay back money if they earn £25,000 per annum, and, if it is not all paid back 30 years after their tuition, then the “debt” is written off. While this is a good system for university payment, it obviously incurs a significant cost for the government, and the huge influx of students due to Labour’s policy greatly increases this bill.
Most importantly, of course, is the cost to the students. Not an economic cost, but a cost in the sense that they waste 3 years doing a degree that is almost pointless. It will not increase their chances of employment, or the wage they earn. When they could be honing their skills in lucrative industries, they are instead slaving away at a desk, studying for exams that they probably aren’t going to pass. Even if they do, the 2nd or 1st class degree they get is less valuable than that of their counterparts at better academic institutions, often within the same city.
Exams can also cause problems for the students. Anxiety is usually widespread among students, whereas those in employment enjoy better mental health, and are better prepared for their future life. If we want to stop mental health issues, then let’s do it at the source of the issues.
Well, this definitely wouldn’t get 40 marks. I barely touched on Brown’s ridiculous drowning of schools in money or the Schools for the Future project to rebuild all schools in Britain. While that was a good idea, it was simply unaffordable, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. But this is for sure, while the education system wasn’t plunged into crisis, it certainly wasn’t the best of times for the system — especially for higher education.