Here are some things which were current at the time of David Blunkett’s tenure in the Department of Education: The Millennium Bug. The Euro. Pokemon Cards.
Fast forward 22 years and David Blunkett finds himself as one of the people running Labour’s Council of Skills, a new policy push by Keir Starmer to prepare young people for the world of work. It is worth mentioning that, with Starmerite deftness, this policy was announced once, under the then-Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green, and has not been heard from since.
Its announcement followed studies that showed that children from Kensington & Chelsea, one of London’s most exclusive boroughs, are twice as likely to achieve essential qualifications over their Hull counterparts. An admirable aim by Labour to ensure all children are reaching their full potential and a chance for them to steal the Tories flagship policy of ‘Levelling Up’.
Whilst arguments can be made about whether schools are there to prepare children for the world of work or whether they have a deeper purpose to spark curiosity, impart knowledge and engage youngsters with the world around them, the Council represents an interesting philosophical position in Starmer’s world view. Developing the regions, preparing the next generation for work and bringing both educators and businesses on-board – a sure sign of Starmer’s drive to emulate Blair’s Third Way and unite different sections of society.
However, even by the terms of that ideological leaning, Starmer has made an error in appointing Blunkett to this role. This is not to do a disservice to the achievements of the 1997-2010 Labour government, particularly in regards to education. Sure Start was laudable and one of the pillars of success of that government and it is a crying shame that the Coalition government saw most of the centres of that scheme off. This is, unfortunately, where the praise ends. Many of the overhauls brought into education by Blunkett have cast long shadows over the quality of education, still seen to this very day.
Teaching today is now staffed by the children of Blair & Brown, those who were schooled under the reforms of this Labour government. Those children would have taken part in what was known as the literacy and numeracy hour, a drive by Blunkett to raise standards in these areas. This led to a narrowing of the curriculum, with schools focused only on these two subjects. The corollary effect of this was that many children lacked a wider knowledge and skills in areas such as history, geography and the arts. Looking back to a time when these teachers would have been in school, it was reported that only 1 in 3 people studied GCSE history in a 2009 report. OFSTED in 2007 also stated that young people’s knowledge was ‘patchy and specific.’ It would more likely be that the children from more affluent areas would have more access to these areas through their cultural capital and sharp-elbowed parents.
In turn, this has meant there are a generation of teachers who lack confidence, knowledge and skills in areas that aren’t English or Mathematics. The focus on these areas only amplified in the Gove/Cummings years at the DFE, meaning that children are still subjected (no pun intended) to an ever-narrowing curriculum. It means that the nation’s children are not being given the chance to prepare for the skills needed for jobs that do not yet exist. Rather, they are being fed a diet of solely mathematics and English, all other areas of learning be damned.
Blunkett is the wrong choice to join this Council of Skills. Labour needs to pick someone dynamic and with a vision for the future of education, not someone who will hark on about their glory days in office. There are many great thinkers and innovators in the field of education right now, looking for ways to diversify our school curriculums, enrich our children’s lives and offer them something for the future. What is not needed is someone who will not be able to fully critique the challenges facing modern day education and how best to adapt and overcome them.
As Steve Richards has said, Blair and Brown did not look to figures from the Wilson era on how to win. They channelled the zeitgeist of the 90s, worked out a formula on finding the right dividing lines between Labour and the Conservatives and surrounded themselves with a young, dynamic, winning team. Ironically, this is the one lesson Starmer needs to learn from that period of history – find the right dividing lines, energise and offer a vision for the future. Use history as a guide for what works and what doesn’t, whilst focusing on the here & now, what is needed for the next generation to do the best they possibly can.