Newsnight (27th August) was an Education special, and leading it off was a report by Sophie Hutchinson which, even by the biased standards of the BBC, was a remarkably biased piece.
At times it had the feel (and the look) of a Labour party political broadcast and, except for a moment (and I do mean a moment, as it amounted to less than five seconds in total) of skepticism from the avowedly non-partisan Professor Alan Smithers, all criticism of Labour's record (and there wasn't that much) came from the a left-of-centre perspective. The sympathetic ex-Schools secretary Estelle Morris was the report's main 'talking head', and she expressed her cautious reservations more in sorrow than in anger. The other voice was Professor Mel Ainscow from Manchester University who said the choice agenda might eventually lead to 'sink schools'. Both were expressing doubts about the one bit of the New Labour project right-of-centre people actually rather like - the 'choice agenda'!!
The first part of Sophie's report began like this: "Under New Labour there's been huge investment in the very building blocks of our education system. Thousands of leaking roofs have been stopped up, classrooms refurbished and sleek new schools, like this - the Manchester Academy - built, but do improvements in structures actually lead to improvements in standards? Teachers, parents and pupils here are convinced it does." This could have been written by Labour's Ed Balls himself!
On she went: "Since 1997 in England there've been around 3000 new, rebuilt or significantly refurbished schools, funding of pupils has risen in real terms by 82%, and the teacher-pupil ratio's improved with an additional 41,000 teachers, according to government figures. It's the kind of funding many teachers believe they will never see again during their careers." Again, can you imagine Ed Balls not loving every single word of this!!
Estelle Morris's first 'turn' simply echoed the lovely Sophie's list by praising Labour's overall achievement and damning the previous Tory government's record.
Sophie Hutchinson then moved on to the 'Choice Agenda': "New Labour promised all parents real choice through good quality schools with their own ethos, like this successful faith school in Manchester, but what kind of choice are parents actually getting and is it really fair? Trinity Church of England School is a multi-faith school, which selects pupils who have a religion. Parents here are very pleased they had the choice of a faith-based school, which they believe are often better performers."
So, Labour's promise has been fulfilled here, though Sophie is worried about one thing (as any self-respecting Guardian-reader would be): "The school prides itself on having pupils with a diverse range of religions, but is it right to shut the door on those without faith?" A certain Dr Dawkins of Oxford would have been shaking his head enthusiastically at that!
Next for our biased Beebette: "New Labour has built up a reputation for being strict on teachers and heads who don't make the grade." (Has it, Sophie? I must admit it's the first I've heard of it.) "Schools have been forced to publish more data on their results than ever before, so that poor performers have nowhere to hide. So has it created a better, more transparent system or is it simply obsessed with targets at the expense of a broader education? During New Labour's time in power results have been rising. In England throughout 1997 over a third of the children taking exams got 5 good GCSE results, including maths and English. The latest figures show that's now increased to almost half."
After all this load of Balls came a question, "So are pupils doing better?" Cue Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham University and his five seconds of skepticism. He was immediately countered by another onslaught of praise for Labour's glorious achievements by our heroine: "The number of English schools cast as poor performers is almost a quarter of what it was when New Labour came to power." Ed Balls must have been thinking of divorcing Yvette Cooper and proposing to Sophie at this point (and I, for one, really would not blame him!)
"Walley Range High has been transformed from a failing school and the head teacher says measuring their improvement isn't just about results." At which the school's headteacher appears, asking for things other than results to be taken into account - the sort of things you hear regularly from left-wing teaching unions. More criticism only from the Left.
Sophie then turned to outcomes: "But just how much does it actually matter what happens in the classroom? Statistics show that it's harder than ever for pupils from deprived homes to get the best paid, most prestigious jobs and that it's our backgrounds, where we've come from, that determines where we're going." Here Sophie was drawing on the 'social mobility' agenda of Labour's Alan Milburn (and its surrounding data): "A recent review has warned that those entering careers such as medicine, law and journalism are increasingly likely to be from more affluent families." Again, more criticism from a wholly left-of-centre perspective.
"So," Sophie asks, "is this actually New Labour's biggest failure?" Cue Estelle, one last time, to say sort-of yes.
Sophie Hutchinson concluded with these words: "So what are the lessons for the future? One study suggests the key lies abroad. The common factor uniting the world's best education systems is that their teachers come from the top third of those leaving university. It insists that making teaching a more prestigious career may be the answer to raising standards and aspirations." That last point could have come straight out of the mouth of the general secretary of the NUT!!
How the makers of Newsnight can put out a report that was at times little more than pro-Labour propaganda? I can hardly believe it myself. The mindset of the liberal educational establishment, which Sophie seems to have imbibed with her mother's milk, must seem so natural to their way of thinking as not so seem peculiar or even pro-Labour. To someone (like me) who does not share it, it will just seem very, very biased.
Thanks to Professor Smithers for his comments. This makes the brevity of his appearance on Newsnight even more remarkable:
Alan Smithers said...I did record about half an hour of comment recognising that Labour had over 11 years doubled the funding for state school pupils and had spent some of this wisely on making teaching more attractive and refurbishing the fabric of schools. But I also said there were three basic flaws: believing that diversity of secondary schools could be an end in itself; confusing rising externally driven test scores with improving education; and spinning to the point that even the good things were not quite believed. As you say, only the second of these got a very brief airing. Alan Smithers, Centre for Education and Employment Research, University of Buckingham.