The Impoverishment of Policies on Poverty

Posted on June 28, 2015

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Labour Teachers Blogpost –  

“Education. Education. Education.” Those famous top three priorities of the soon to be incoming Blairite administration. True, there was an awful lot of money thrown at schools in the late-1990s and early-2000s. Much of it did a lot of good too. Much more of it, however, went the way all public funds go; into the hands of those who can see a good thing coming from a long way off.  

“Social justice.” There goes another mantra. The diluted, market-friendly, don’t-scare-the-horses distant cousin of socialism and redistribution. True, there was an awful lot of interesting programmes set up in the name of social justice in the late-1990s and early-2000s. Many of them did a lot of good too. Many more of them, however, went the way many innovative programmes go, into the dustbin of history with barely a whimper wrought from those that watched them wither.

Maybe I’m feeling a little grumpier than usual after a very tough week, but as I write this post I am struggling to see any lasting legacy of the Blair years. Perhaps it was the Guardian headline “Child poverty rise across Britain halts progress made since the 1990s” that did it. The headline, and the story the follows, shows that after just five years of Conservative government we are almost back to where we were when the refrain “things can only get better” held more hope in it that any pop/house anthem has any right to have. Worse still, the five years have been a Conservative government kept on the leash by the now nearly defunct Liberal Democrats.

And yet my anger today isn’t directed at the Tories (they are, after all, Tories and do what it says on the tin better than Ronseal). Nor is it targeted at the wider public for voting them in. It is not even aimed at the miserable showing of the Labour front bench in the 2015 election and the paucity of ideas generated by the new breed to try and turn things around in time for the 2020 election.  

My anger is squarely focused on the failure of the big ideas and the big spending of the Blair years. If it could all have been swept away without a trace in five years then what on earth was it all for? If the lasting legacy of New Labour’s education, education, education era has been boiled down to academisation-for-all, performance-related-pay and a rampant ‘standards’ agenda then there is truly no justice in the term ‘social justice’.

Scanning the terrain, I am struggling to see one single example of a successful and surviving reform from those 13 years that has generated enough ‘moral capital’ to make it untouchable to a Tory administration in thrall to economic anti-Keynesianism. Children’s Centres have been disembowelled. London Challenge has been salami-sliced and sold off to the highest bidders. Every Child Matters mattered not a jot in the end.

You see, the big problem with the New Labour years was that it traded off ‘social justice’ reforms in education with expectations of higher standards. The unspoken rhetoric was “if we give you more to tackle inequality, you should be able to get better results from children in poverty”. It’s a deceptively enticing argument that reduces the complexity of poverty and places it in a Newtonian relationship with education, but it’s an argument that has gained more traction than it merited and has allowed a post-crash government to say “well, if you could do that much when the times were good, now you need to do more with less”.

The reality, as most of us will now admit, was that the system became geared to ‘proving’ that standards had increased for those in poverty, regardless of whether they had done so or not. Schools learned how to play the system to their advantage and a second-term and third-term government were grateful for the opportunity to publish the evidence of the efficacy of their ‘social justice’ policies.  

Then came the scorched earth approach of the Cameron administration and their “doing more with less” expectation of schools as key drivers of social egalitarianism. High standards all round, because that’s the way to make the poor socially mobile. But, as we head deeper into the second term of office, schools will play the new system to their advantage and the government will be grateful for the opportunity to prove the efficacy of their efforts. Plus ça change.  

There’s got to be more to tackling poverty than this. Probably not from the Conservatives, but surely from Labour at some point. And the first step? Decoupling education policy from policies on poverty. Closing the gaps should be the outcome of education policy, never the aim, and until the government aims to close the income gaps between the rich and the poor (perhaps the truest example of the failure of the New Labour years) education policy should never be used simply to fill the gaps.

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