In recent time there has been a battle at the heart of the British Labour Party; central to this internal conflict is the opinion that Jeremy Corbyn is incapable of leading the Labour Party to an electoral victory by the Blairite faction of the party. A leadership challenge has been launched by Owen Smith who has the backing of the moderate MPs; they view Corbyn as lacking in essential Leadership qualities required to deliver a victory at the polls for the Party, currently on its second term in opposition. They cite their reasons for his opposition being because he is too Left-wing and that he has an awkward public posture – it is true that he does at times amble about like a Hackney Social worker who has missed several dental appointments. The Guardian online described him last week as a ‘ . . . political pinata whacked mercilessly by all sides. mauled by the Press, maligned by his own MPs, ridiculed by the Government.’ As a result his policy positions make it difficult to attract broad support for the Labour Party.
Last week I attended a live tv debate at Sky News between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith. The invited audience were chosen carefully: 33% Corbyn support, 33% Smith support and 33% undecided. Just 90 minutes before sitting in the studio I discussed my question with the SKY researcher and she was satisfied that I should ask this of both Corbyn and Smith. Whether or not they had much prior knowledge of other questions I do not know but certainly mine was only proposed a short time before the debate began. My intention was to ask an open question to gather a thoughtful, considered response from Corbyn in particular, not to accept platitudes or broad statements of policy. I already knew of Corbyn’s general manifesto in terms of education and his central tenet to ‘create a more equal society’. This article seeks to map my experience of the live televised debate between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith and also to share personal insights of my impression of Corbyn as a potential political leader of the UK.
As a teacher in East London I am embroiled in the complexities of Political interference to improve the Uk education system. Teachers now complete lengthy assessments of children from three years of age, provide detailed data about every pupil and analyse all learning, dotting every i and crossing every t. For many years the practical element of teaching – I suggest this is a hugely skilled professional aptitude – has almost taken a back seat. Schools must produce results to show that ALL pupils are learning and achieving set targets. Academic prowess is valued; other skills learnt in education are often disregarded.
Returning to Corbyn’s manifesto in more detail I considered his statement on Education:
We will build a new National Education Service, open to all throughout their lives. We will create universal public childcare to give all children a good start in life, allowing greater sharing of caring responsibilities and removing barriers to women participating in the labour market. We will bring about the progressive restoration of free education for all; and guarantee quality apprenticeships and adult skills training.
My response is, of course I agree with this but how will the LabourParty achieve this? A National Education service that is open to all? Yes, but doesn’t that already exist in the UK for ages three to eighteen years. No fees are required, no costs for books or equipment are needed. We will bring about the progressive restoration of free education for all. Yes, of course! But what is meant by ‘progressive restoration’ Mr Corbyn and how will you achieve this? Yes, I also agree that quality apprenticeships and adult skills training are essential in all economies for those of us deemed less academic with other equally valuable skill sets.
So before I sat in the studio I was mulling over whether Mr Corbyn could convince the audience that these broad statements were personally important to him, that he understood truly and honestly how to improve the lives of those dissatisfied people living in the UK. Those of us working hard professionally but still knowing that the UK is certainly NOT an ‘equal society’.
To return to the Sky debate: my question was, ‘Please tell me what you consider the BENEFITS of a Grammar school system within the UK Education system?’ For some readers of this blog, an explanation is required. In the UK, most 11 year olds attend a Comprehensive school until 16 or 18, then, if they achieve required A’level results, will apply for University places. These Comprehensive schools are intended to provide a ‘free education for all’. But inevitably this provision can never be ‘equal for all’. There are also Grammar schools: at age 11 children take a test of verbal and numerical reasoning. Its consists of high level questions and requires additional tutoring as these skills are not usually practised in the UKs state schools. I passed this test in the 1970s with no extra tutoring as I believe I had a visionary Head who ensured ALL pupils were taught these reasoning skills. In fact, many of my ‘working class’ friends also passed.
Schools are highly complex institutions; teachers morale can be high or low, pupil’s behavior might be exemplary or challenging, financial budgets vary, class sizes vary, Headteachers may be visionary or less inspirational . . . the list continues. Yes, we can aim for equality or provision in education but HOW? Is this achieved in other countries ? (Finland is often cited as an example of a very successful education system) BUT MR CORBYN, HOW do you intend to achieve your manifesto proposals on this small island of the United Kingdom?
In the Sky tv studio, we audience members viewed a documentary about the Labour Leadership contest; a polarised piece of work mostly vilifying Corbyn and giving air time to Labour party members who enthusiastically criticised him both personally and politically. Many of the audience expressed discontent at this. Then Corbyn and Smith arrived in the studio; both relaxed and both impressive in their initial speeches. But there was little new to be heard from either men . . . usual platitudes and vociferous assertions that, when analysed, mean absolutely nothing. I felt that Corbyn’s key message remained that of an ‘equal society’; a phrase that right-wing protagonists might suggest is essentially wishy-washy and vague.
Mr Corbyn’s reply to my question was prefaced by a pause and a little verbal fumble. He responded that yes he had attended a Grammar school and there were benefits such as providing support to the pupils (but)a great deal of pressure on them to achieve the best they can from themselves. He continued with,
“My problem with Grammar schools is that you have selection at the age of 11, the majority of children will not be selected to go . . .I think the idea that you impose a test on all our 11 year olds which has a life affecting time for them . . . a life-affecting decision . . . they go to a school where they’re told theyre special and the others go to a school where they’re told they’re not so special. I want all our children to go to well-funded good quality schools, No selection at the age of 11, bring our children up together, understanding each other’s strengths and weaknesses, don’t select at 11, don’t divide at 11, bring our communities together. . . ”
On reflection, I admired Corbyn’s reply to my question: he was thoughtful, honest. He did not answer in platitudes (well, maybe a few!). His answer was heartfelt . . . and he admitted he attended a Grammar school and there WERE benefits although he could never support this form of selection. Other responses from him demonstrated an honesty and deep-seated understanding of the importance of working towards a more equal society for all.
I believe that Mr Corbyn is an impressive potential Leader for the UK, based upon his honesty, integrity and political acumen. In the staged situation of the SKY tv studios it is not feasible for Corbyn to fully express his dedication to the cause of working towards an equal society and education system in the UK. Evidence that he understands the needs of poorer people is provided by his voluntary work in the Jamaican urban blight communities of Kingston for two years after he left school. These communities are incubators for burgeoning gun-crime and violence that is a manifestation of the level of poverty and social exclusion. We at Kingston-mouth, being of Jamaican heritage, know that this is truly impressive. Few could survive one day, let alone years of dedicated service to the families who face severe poverty, crime and social deprivation with so little hope of a prosperous future. Corbyn’s volunteering experience in Kingston, Jamaica inner cities is a base-level of understanding of how an unequal society can descend into a vicious cycle of social deprivation. This hardened experience definitely qualifies him to lead. We believe that Jeremy Corbyn is a man who would work tirelessly to improve the lives of British people who, under the present Conservative government, face social and financial deprivation with little hope of change.
This article was written by Ann Smith managing Editor of Kingstonmouth.com. Ann is a Teacher working in East London and has an interest in Education, Human Rights and International development issues. Readers of this article are welcome to provide feedback at the space provided at the end of this article ar at firstname.lastname@example.org useful commentary made on our Facebook and Kingsonmouth@twitter pages.