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House of Lords
Speeches

I was delighted to speak on behalf of the Labour front bench in the Lords covering an Education debate on “British Values”.  Here’s my take on it:

Who forced Michael Gove into a massive u-turn? In 2007 he said “‘There is something rather unBritish about seeking to define Britishness’. Now he has decided not only to define Britishness, but to legally require every British school to define Britishness and “promote British values”.

Everyone agrees that British values around the rule of law, individual liberty, and tolerance, helped create of one of the world's oldest and most successful democracies. We're less agreed on the recent implication that a better understanding of, say, the Magna Carta, might sort out poor school governance in Birmingham. That's obviously a bit of a caricature, but the point is that shared British values should be instilled by example, not diktat. Moreover it feels like an Orwellian and distinctly un-British approach to do what the Government has done in the wake of the Trojan Horse affair, which is to tar an entire community with language taken from counter-terrorism strategies.

The crisis in Birmingham throws up two key issues that are central to improving our education system. The first is oversight and accountability. The second is ensuring our children get a balanced education, within tolerant, aspirational communities.

On accountability, it's extraordinary that a self-confessed neo-conservative like our Education Secretary (who rails against the tyranny of centrally-planned economies) has devised a school bureaucracy so centralised it would make Lenin proud. If it made Lenin proud and it worked, that would be one thing. But the insanity of the Education Secretary thinking he can run thousands and thousands of schools from a desk in Whitehall has been a shambolic failure.

It’s not just that Mr Gove’s desk was submerged; children and parents were failed. And teachers – while delivering high attainment for their pupils – were abandoned. The minority of schools concerned displayed appalling governance, gender discrimination, homophobia, financial irregularities, and were unduly influenced by a conservative religious minority.

So what's the answer? It's a combination of the following 4 areas:

Firstly end centralisation, and introduce local oversight. That’s what Labour's approach on School Standards Commissioners does. The Tory policy is to introduce 8 regional commissioners – but this system still lacks local oversight, so can’t remedy the current weakness.

Secondly, where discrimination is found, for instance in attitudes towards girls, gay people, or members of particular religious groups, then it’s time to put that great British value into action: uphold the rule of law and enforce the 2010 Equality Act - don't start talking about terrorism prevention strategies instead! That’s why the last Labour Government introduced the Equality Act, because it safeguards basic British values around fairness and individual liberty. And we did it in the face of full-throated opposition from many Conservatives and Lib Dems.

Thirdly we need schools to offer a broad and balanced curriculum, and Ofsted should judge schools on their ability to do this, and prevent them offering a narrow or doctrinaire approach.

Fourthly we should urgently reflect on the wisdom of removing the responsibility for schools to promote community cohesion. The Government rejected Labour’s view that this was important, but events in Birmingham show this was a mistake.

So yes, let's learn from our past. The most relevant history however isn't the Magna Carta. It might be important that 800 years ago our baronial forefathers slapped King John about (mainly for their own interests), and put him in his place – a place on the throne which became less divine and fractionally more accountable and democratic. But no, our relevant history isn't from 1215, it's from 2001.

The key finding of the 2001 Cantle Report into the Oldham and Bradford riots was that a failure to integrate education systems placed communities on a collision course. British values around the rule of law, and respect of individual liberty, went up in flames. None of us want that. The current atomised and fragmented system, so beloved of Mr Gove, makes it more likely that schools and communities become isolated. And it puts schools at risk from narrow sectarian interests who can wreak havoc by evading scrutiny.

The Department of Education was alerted to the situation in Birmingham 4 years ago. You can imagine the letter lying unopened on Mr Gove’s cluttered desk, while teachers and children were left alone to deal with intimidation, discrimination and worse.

Let’s hope the Government now does its homework, becomes less ideologically-driven, and puts local safeguards in place to protect children’s education. By all means define and promote British values. But let’s be clear, it was Mr Gove’s laissez-faire values and disregard for oversight and scrutiny that led to this fiasco. It was Mr Gove who forced Mr Gove into a u-turn.