The contested history of Ralph Miliband almost managed to knock the Tory Party conference off the front pages this week, which is either a horrendous error of judgement by the Blackshirts' Friend or a brilliant bit of Judo-style shroud-waving by "Red Ed". While we should be grateful for less coverage of Boris Johnson at all times, the "alien Marxist hater" spat is nothing more than pre-election jockeying. That the Daily Mail isn't going to back Labour is no more of a surprise than that it remains iffy about Jews (I wonder how Melanie Phillips feels about that now), while Ed Miliband decided a couple of years ago that there were more votes to be gained in standing up to the press barons than deferring to their interests. As you were, then.
The keen-eyed connoisseur of ideological nuance (with top-notes of anti-Marxist hysteria) will have been more taken with the widely-reported speech of Tim Hands, head of Magdalen College School in Oxford and now chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. This is fascinating both for the varied way in which it was reported, reflecting the divergent interests of different newspapers, and for the general failure to acknowledge what the man was really banging on about.
The headline in the Guardian was "Love has disappeared from state education, says private school leader". Hands was quoted extensively: "The story of the last 50 years is, I suggest, the intrusion of government and the disappearance of the child. More radically put, it is the intrusion of the state, and the disappearance of love." This is obviously consistent with the paper's own fretting about the turn away from child-centred learning and the lack of local autonomy. Hand's fear, that education "is increasingly in the grip of central government and, worse, increasingly at the mercy of much-favoured commercial providers who would like to expand their operations", was music to the paper's liberal ears, as was his concern with "the flawed mechanics of league tables" and the "increasing obsession with the curriculum, and especially a curriculum which is prescriptive not liberal; functionalist, not humanist".
What the paper failed to adequately note was that Hands' appeal to liberal nostrums was intended to inexorably lead the audience towards an acceptance that the villain of the piece is the state: "Children and childhood are too precious to be abandoned to the anonymous and impersonal guardianship of the state. The state is not currently suitable to direct education unaided or unchallenged because it does not understand the child". You could find the same criticism, along with claims about denying children the opportunity to earn a living, being made in 1870 (the introduction of elementary education to age 12), 1918 (the raising of the school-leaving age to 14), and 1944 (the introduction of the tripartite system and raising of the school leaving age to 15). Hands does not explain who, if not the state, will provide an education for those unable to afford private school fees.
In contrast, the Daily Telegraph highlighted Hands' anguish at the treatment of those who choose the independent sector: "Parents 'feel like social lepers' for choosing private schools". Naturally, the anti-state message was also foregrounded: "The long interfering arm and dead restraining hands of government has
emasculated the education system of this country and deprived children of their
long-accumulated heritage." That sentence looks like it was penned specifically with the Torygraph in mind, employing many of their beloved figurative devices, such as the dead hand of government, emasculation, and heritage. You can almost picture their ideal reader, clasping his 12-bore shotgun in one hand and his bollocks in the other.
The Daily Mail, perhaps distracted by their corpse-kicking exertions, weren't quite sure what to think, headlining with "Happiness of state pupils is being sacrificed in obsessive race for exam results, says leading headteacher". This was dangerously close to the pitch of their arch-enemy, the BBC, which combined Hands' speech with a report on a letter to The Times by academics and writers: "'Childhood damaged' by over-testing, says poet laureate". The Forgers' Gazette managed to restore what passes for sanity in Middle England by finishing with some stock scaremongering about the increasing unaffordability of school fees (surely the married tax allowance will defray this?)
Meanwhile, the Evening Standard decided on a more positive spin: "Private schools better for social mobility, says leading headmaster". According to Hands, "Social mobility, as I understand it, means the ability for the individual to alter their economic and other kinds of status, and, in the current debate, to do so as a result of a high quality education. Social mobility is the founding principle and the historic and enduring specialism of many of our schools and a principle to which we all adhere". You can see the attraction for the discerning oligarch, who, having altered his economic status and transplanted to London, has decided to send little Sergei to Westminster School.
Out of the same stable, the Independent went with "Headmaster rails against 'social leprosy' stigma of private school education", and used the story as an excuse to trot out well-worn examples of perceived "public school prejudice" and to repeat the scandalised-old-maid claim of Anthony Seldon that discrimination against public school pupils had become "the hatred that dare not speak its name" (it doesn't say much for the English public school system when its leading lights come up with such cretinous phrases).
Despite some amusing cracks by Hands (the Department for Education as "the office of the Supreme Goviet" is quite good), this is not an attack on Tory education policy so much as an (ultimately helpful) attack on the principle of state control. Michael Gove will no doubt respond that the growth of academies and free schools means that more schools will have the independence and child-focus, not to mention love, that Hands desires.
What Gove won't acknowledge, though the dawning fear perhaps explains the Daily Mail's uncertainty, is that the method of his revolution - centralising the control of schools in Whitehall - means that a new Labour government would have the ability to impose a curriculum that would please the ghost of Ralph Miliband more than the flesh-and-blood Niall Ferguson.
In reality, it is by no means certain that Labour would diverge far from the cross-party (neoliberal) consensus established over the last 15 years: the erosion of local democratic control; the introduction of commercial sponsors and for-profit providers; the focus on national standards and riggable league tables; and an increasingly prescriptive and business-friendly curriculum (less love and free enquiry, more compliant drones).
For all his egomania and traditionalist posturing, Gove has been an exemplary neoliberal education secretary. Hands' criticism is essentially a conservative critique of neoliberal policy, not a Kronstadt rebellion against the Bolsheviks of Whitehall. What he is arguing for is the further extension of the academy and free school programme, but with greater devolution of authority (to the right sort of school) and less favouritism in selecting suppliers. By the same token, the speech to the HHC by Michael Wilshaw, the Head of Oftsed, was a neoliberal call for private schools to exert more influence over state schools, dressed up as an oblique tax demand ("Education should not be a scarce resource hoarded by those lucky enough to possess it").
The ultimate aim of Hands and the HHC is to blur the boundary between the state and independent sectors sufficiently to preserve and strengthen the privileges of the latter. In this, they are at one with Gove and Wilshaw, for whom the aspirational independent sector is central to their envisioned tripartite system. Instead of grammars, technical colleges and secondary moderns, this evolving system spans both the independent and state sectors, based on an upper class of private schools, a middle class of academies and free schools (the direct descendants of grammar and grant-maintained schools), and a lower class of state comprehensives.
To judge from media reports, you might think there was a right old ding-dong going on between the independent sector and the government, with the fulcrum of debate being the degree of state control and the associated obligations of private schools, but this is just a pretend fight in the playground. Both sides want to reinforce the non-state educational establishment and open up commercial opportunities for private providers in the rump state sector. For all the waffle about "love" and "social leprosy", this is just reactionaries and neoliberals squabbling over the spoils.