Jonathan Simons: Let’s build on the education reforms we worked for – not tear them down

23 Mar

Jonathan Simons is a Director and Head of the Education Practice at Public First, and a former government adviser.

“The pyramids themselves, doting with age, have forgotten the names of their founders”

These words are from Thomas Fuller, a churchman and historian during the English Civil War. His argument is that over time, even the greatest monuments can be taken for granted. We admire their presence, rather than how they came to be.

It is important to remember that the system of state education in England is comparatively recent. We have only had a national curriculum since 1988. Schools have only been allowed to be free from local government control since the early 1990s – and as recently as a decade ago, only around 200 of 23,000 schools were using these freedoms. It was only in 2010 that Michael Gove made a series of significant structural and curricular changes to state education in England.

Yet in the last year, I have observed the uncomfortable situation in which some Conservatives who claim the mantle of education reformers are simultaneously advocating Covid-driven changes which at best pay little heed to, and at worst threaten to actively undermine, the reasons why the reforms made in 2010 were done and remain so important.

By no means was the Gove programme perfect. In part, the underpinning legal and regulatory system was not thought through properly. No one would imagine – nor would find desirable – the fact that, 11 years later, Gavin Williamson runs over 5,000 schools under contract, governed by a strange mix of company law and charity law, directly from Westminster.

But the risk is that in this time of widespread feeling that Something Must Be Done, we are forgetting the names of the founders of the pyramids and the work that they went through.

The planning before the election, the bringing together of fellow dedicated reformers (Nick Gibb now the last one standing), and the battles that they fought within an education sector and against opponents who were implacably opposed both to the theory of change and seemingly – at times – the very legitimacy of politicians to presume to interfere in those matters which ought in their view to be left to the sector.

This all, among too many Conservatives, has become ancient history. And at the very time when even erstwhile opponents like Fiona Millar say they recognise that the current system has some legitimacy by virtue of its persistence, those who ought to be its strongest supporters risk forgetting that history.

Because make no mistake about it: while there are many well-intentioned people who rightly argue in a time of Covid that all parts of the State may need to be considered afresh, there are some who have maintained a hostility to all elements of reform, and who are using the cover of a pandemic to march under an old standard once again.

The second risk is that in an attempt to be seen as more reasonable and accommodating, some current Conservatives may not only forget the history of battles fought, but will not understand why they were fought in the first place.

This is the most frustrating thing about education policy: that those things which evidence and practice suggests are most likely to work are often the hardest to describe and seek support for. They don’t sound immediately obvious. They don’t have snappy slogans. Real education reform doesn’t compete well in the marketplace for short attention spans against cries of “scrap GCSEs” or “ban exclusions” or “educate children for the jobs of the future”.

It is easy for opponents to cast aspersions on the motives of reformers. Why, they ask, is it that some people don’t want to see happy children? Why is it that they want to see such travesties as rote learning, thick textbooks, the pressure of exams, children filled with facts from a world of predominantly white men, and classrooms with rows of desks?

All too often, the challenge is not answered. And that answer is that, of course reformers want the same thing. Everyone wants young people leaving school who are happy, well rounded, educated young people – those who are ready to take their place in the United Kingdom and to forge their own destiny.

The question is one of means, not ends. It is about how best all young people – and in particular, those who are born with less of the attendant advantages of wealth and familial support – can be supported to do so.

And here reformers take the leap away from much of that which sounds instinctive. We do not, as the village, raise the child through letting them stumble around under a delusion of kindness. We bring to bear – gently, sympathetically, but unapologetically – the collective wisdom of all our prior generations.

We know, and are unashamed of saying, that there is what Professor Michael Young called powerful knowledge, which is knowledge which unlocks further knowledge, and it is this which we prioritise for passing on.

We know, and are unashamed of saying, that well designed assessments and exams, including at GCSE, tell us how young people are performing, allow us to hold schools to account, and aid children in retaining this powerful knowledge for future life.

We know, and are unashamed of saying, that the teacher is the expert in the room, and aided by stores of knowledge and their own expertise, that their role is to instruct the student.

We know, and are unashamed of saying, that we set the highest expectations of all pupils, and that poor behaviour cannot be accepted. It is by doing all these things that, rather than hamper children, we best develop them as happy, confident, creative young people.

This message takes time and understanding. It does not always fit within the day to day rhythms of political life. But it is the golden thread of true education reformers of all parties: just as Gove built on work of Andrew Adonis and David Blunkett, who in turn developed that of Ken Baker and others.

And while this does not mean, of course, that nothing should ever change, it is the role of those who truly have the highest expectations for young people to understand what has been built and why, and not give in easily and carelessly to whims, or slogans, or loose calls for radical change.

Such people should also note Swift’s maxim that the echo of a London coffee house does not reflect the voice of the kingdom. Beneath the chatter of supposed discontent, a lot of work we have done at Public First with parents of all social classes and political leanings shows that they want just this type of education for their own children.

So when attention turns, as it does at the moment, to how our school system should react to Covid, we should remind ourselves what are the pyramidal stones on which our system has been built, and ask whether the proposed solutions are likely to strengthen those foundations – or send them toppling down.

Benedict Rogers: It’s time for Raab to bring Magnitsky sanctions to bear on those oppressing Hong Kong

25 Aug

Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.

It is not often that one sees Iain Duncan Smith, John McDonnell, Natalie Bennett, Andrew Adonis, Alistair Carmichael and the Scottish Nationalists on the same page.

Bringing the former Conservative Party leader and Brexiteer together with the former Labour Shadow Chancellor, the former Green Party leader, the former Labour minister and leading Remainer, the Liberal Democrats foreign affairs spokesperson, and two SNP MPs is an achievement – and as far as I can see it is Carrie Lam’s, the Hong Kong Chief Executive, only achievement.

Last week these politicians, together with David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary, Helena Kennedy, a leading human rights barrister and Labour peer, and 12 other Parliamentarians, wrote to the Foreign Secretary in support of calls for the imposition of targeted Magnitsky sanctions against Hong Kong and Chinese government officials responsible for grave human rights violations and a flagrant breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Their letter follows a personal appeal to Dominic Raab by Nathan Law, the highest-profile pro-democracy activist to escape Hong Kong since the imposition of the new draconian national security law on 1 July.

In 2016, Law was elected Hong Kong’s youngest ever legislator, at the age of 23, but was disqualified the following year for quoting Mahatma Gandhi when he took his oath of office. He was then sentenced to eight months in jail for his role in leading the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests. In his letter, Law writes:

As a party to the legally binding Sino British Joint Declaration, the United Kingdom holds a unique position in advocating for Hong Kong. I earnestly hope that the UK government would take the important step to sanction Ms Carrie Lam and other officials involved, so to send a clear signal –– not just to Beijing, but also to other countries in the free world that we ought to stand firm against an oppressive regime which disrespects both their citizens’ rights and the international norms.  Please safeguard our shared belief in freedom and human rights as well as the pursuit of democracy in Hong Kong. Please stand with Hong Kong.”

Since the imposition of the national security law on Hong Kong by Beijing, Britain has responded robustly, by announcing a generous package to allow Hong Kongers who hold British National Overseas (BNO) passports to come to the UK on a “pathway to citizenship”, and by suspending our extradition agreement with Hong Kong. These are very welcome steps, but there is much more than needs to be done.

Although the new law has only been in place for less than two months, we are already seeing its dramatic impact on Hong Kong. The arrest of several prominent activists, particularly the entrepreneur and media proprieter Jimmy Lai, the police raid on his pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, and the arrest of Law’s colleague Agnes Chow and ITN reporter Wilson Li; the issuing of arrest warrants for six Hong Kong activists outside Hong Kong, including Law; and the banning of slogans, the withdrawal of pro-democracy books from libraries and the censorship of school textbooks; all indicate the end of Hong Kong’s autonomy under “one country, two systems” and the destruction of the city’s fundamental rights and freedoms.

It is right for the British Government to respond to events proportionately, and with a staggered approach. There is no point in firing all our ammunition in one go, and then having nothing left to deploy. But the events in Hong Kong in recent weeks require a response that goes beyond rhetoric. That’s why it is time for targeted sanctions.

The United States has already imposed its Magnitsky sanctions on Lam and other officials, but it is vital that the international community act in as united and co-ordinated a way as possible. Hong Kong must not become – or even be perceived to be – a pawn in a US-China fight, but rather as the front line in the fight for freedom and the international rules-based order.

For that reason, the rest of the free world has a duty to act, and as the co-signatory of the Joint Declaration guaranteeing Hong Kong’s continued autonomy, it is right that Britain should lead the way.

Our Magnitsky sanctions legislation is now in place, and so far 49 individuals from Russia, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Burma are on the list. Raab is one of the architects of this legislation – dating back to his days on the backbenches when he championed the idea – and he is said to regard it as a legacy issue. So he has every interest in ensuring that this sanctions regime is meaningful.

To do that, those responsible for dismantling freedoms in Hong Kong, once one of Asia’s most open cities, and the violation of an international treaty – as well as those perpetrating some of the 21st Century’s most egregious atrocity crimes against the Uyghurs – must be held to account. If Lam cannot be sanctioned for presiding over a year of shocking police brutality and repression, who can?

So the 19 Parliamentarians who signed this letter are right to declare: “We stand with Nathan in this appeal.” I do too, and I hope that the Foreign Secretary will act soon.

Bevin, the working-class John Bull who stood up to Stalin and has no successors in today’s Labour Party

11 Jul

Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill by Andrew Adonis

Andrew Adonis has chosen a magnificent subject. Ernest Bevin was recognised by everyone he met in the 30 years before his death in 1951 as a tremendous figure, a man of power who invigorated any transaction in which he took part, “a working-class John Bull”, as Winston Churchill put it, who did not allow anyone, Stalin included, to push him around.

From 1945-51 Bevin served as one of the great Foreign Secretaries. The brilliant young men who worked for him at the Foreign Office respected and adored him.

This book carries a photograph, which one could wish had been reproduced larger, of the last of his private secretaries, Roddy Barclay – tall, thin, alert, languid, deferential, wearing an elegant double-breasted suit, a grave demeanour and a moustache, “a clever man who chose not to seem clever” as his obituarist in The Independent put it – holding a paper for the Foreign Secretary and indicating on it some matter of importance.

Bevin is sitting at an ornate desk, a massive figure, head on one side, cigarette in the corner of his mouth, pen held, as Adonis points out, like a chisel, giving the paper his undivided attention and probably about to deliver a brutally funny retort.

In Adonis’s best chapter, entitled “Ernie”, we get Bevin at the height of his powers, with Barclay and Nico Henderson preserving some of the best things they heard him say:

“If you open that Pandora’s Box you never know what Trojan ‘orses will jump out.”

Or of a speech by Nye Bevan:

“It sounded as if he’d swallowed a dictionary. ‘E used a lot of words but ‘e didn’t know what they all meant.”

One of the reasons why Bevin has faded from the public mind is that his name is so similar to Bevan, who eclipsed all others to carry off the glory of founding the National Health Service.

Unless one is an expert, one has to make an effort to remember which Labour politician is which, and although Bevin was a big figure for a longer period, and had greater achievements to his name, none of those achievements is so easy to explain or to approve of as the NHS.

He was born into rural poverty in Winsford, a remote village in Somerset where another Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was to spend part of his childhood.

Bevin’s mother, Mercy, whose photograph he kept all his life on his desk, was single, and died when he was eight. He left school at the age of 11 and became a farm labourer, which he called “a form of slavery”. His favourite poem was “The Deserted Village” by Oliver Goldsmith:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,

Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

At the age of 13, Bevin managed to join two of his older brothers in Bristol, where he became a drayman, a Baptist preacher, a socialist and a trade union organiser, and before the First World War made common cause between the Bristol carters and dockers.

He was an organiser and negotiator of genius and in 1922 founded the Transport and General Workers’ Union, which he built into the biggest union in the world, all the time fighting off attempts by Communists to take control.

This was his school of politics. He saw that Churchill’s decision to go back on the gold standard in 1925 had “pushed us over the cliff” and was a disaster for wages, which would have to be cut if British industries were to survive.

Hence the General Strike of 1926, precipitated by proposed cuts in miners’ wages. It is good to be reminded of the remark by Lord Birkenhead, who as F.E.Smith had won a name as one of the most brilliant Conservatives of that or any other generation:

“It would be possible to say without exaggeration of the miners’ leaders that they were the stupidest men in England if we had not had frequent occasion to meet the owners.”

Adonis calls F.E.Smith “the Boris Johnson-esque Tory extrovert of the day”. One sees what he means, but the description isn’t quite right. Smith was harsher than Johnson, and had a more cutting wit.

If Bevin had been able to take charge of the union side of the talks with the Government, the General Strike might have been averted. He was not dominant enough at the start of the crisis to do that, but had emerged by the end of it as a “leader of leaders”.

Men of imagination and intellect – David Lloyd George, John Maynard Keynes – recognised Bevin as a kindred spirit, more Keynesian than Keynes, someone who saw without needing to work out the theory that one answer to mass unemployment must be to leave the gold standard, while another must be to institute programmes of public works.

Men devoid of imagination – Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative leader, and Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour leader – formed a coalition to uphold economic orthodoxy and keep Lloyd George, who championed Keynes’s ideas, out of power.

In 1935, Bevin was instrumental in getting rid of George Lansbury, described by Adonis as “a 1930s Jeremy Corbyn”, from the Labour leadership. “Bevin hammered Lansbury to death,” as their Labour colleague Hugh Dalton put it. When reproached for brutality, Bevin said,

“Lansbury had been going about dressed in saint’s clothes for years waiting for martyrdom: I set fire to the faggots.”

Bevin supported Clement Attlee as the new leader, and in the years to come upheld him through numerous attempts by Labour colleagues to overthrow him.

In 1940, when Labour joined Churchill’s wartime coalition, Bevin came in as Minister of Labour and a member of the War Cabinet, and with characteristic dynamism set about mobilising the work force.

In 1945, as the new Foreign Secretary, Bevin was plunged at Attlee’s side into hard bargaining with Stalin at the Potsdam Conference, and saw at once – much quicker than the Americans – that here was a Communist who was trying to take control of Western Europe, and must be resisted.

There was no false modesty about Bevin. He knew what he could do. He worked incredibly hard, without showing off about it, and “used alcohol like a car uses petrol”. On the plane back from Potsdam, he told Nico Henderson:

“You see, I’ve had a good deal of experience with foreigners. Before the last war I had to do a good deal of negotiation with ships’ captains of all nationalities. These people, Stalin and Truman, are just the same as all Russians and Americans; and dealing with them over foreign affairs is just the same as trying to come to a settlement about unloading a ship. Oh yes, I can handle them.”

Adonis keeps saying, in a somewhat repetitive way, how crucial Bevin was in resisting Stalin’s attempts to neutralise or take over the whole of occupied Germany.

This is not really why we are interested in Bevin. He is a fascinating political personality. We want to read about Churchill whether or not it can be proved he stopped Hitler, and about Bevin whether or not it can be proved he stopped Stalin.

In each case, the more stridently one advances the claim, the more insecure one is liable to sound.

It is true that the creation of what became West Germany was a triumph of British statecraft for which Bevin deserves credit.

Every so often, when I was a correspondent in Berlin in the 1990s, I was reminded of this, but found it hard to dramatise events which had happened 50 years before.

And after all, the success of West Germany had an awful lot to do with the Germans.

Bevin did not get pious about the postwar settlement. He said of the Germans to General Brian Robertson, Governor of the British zone: “I tries ‘ard, Brian, but I ‘ates them.”

This book is dedicated to Roy Jenkins, “friend, mentor, inspiration”. Unfortunately, the disciple was in too much of a rush to maintain the high standards of eloquence and wit set by his master.

There are sentences in Adonis’s book which are too clumsy ever to have been written, let alone allowed to pass into print, by Jenkins.

But there is also a love of anecdote, and an understanding of the way it can illuminate history, which are worthy of Jenkins.

This book can be recommended to anyone interested in Bevin who lacks the time or will to read Alan Bullock’s three-volume biography, on which Adonis acknowledges his reliance.

Another reason why Bevin has faded from public view is that it is impossible to say who his successors were. The unions became a source of trouble more than of statesmen. Alan Johnson is the last major figure to have come up through one.

The mighty T & G merged in 2007 with Amicus and was renamed Unite the Union, led by Len McCluskey. What a falling off. Adonis concludes of Bevin,

“He was lionised in his day as the first of a new breed of ‘common man’ who would manage the British state in a new democratic era. But Bevin wasn’t the first of a kind: he was the first and last.”