Angela Rayner’s Record on Education Is a Warning to the Left

by Sol Gamsu

28 February 2020

Angela Rayner is the frontrunner in Labour’s deputy leadership campaign. She’s ahead in the polls of party members, has over 200 constituency Labour party endorsements and the backing of unions UNISON, GMB, USDAW and the CWU.

It looks like she has it in the bag, but after Monday’s criticism of Jeremy Corbyn, what does she actually stand for?

Rayner, the shadow secretary of state for education, is usually a strong media performer, so her comments that Corbyn “didn’t command respect” as Labour leader might come as a surprise. But behind her impressive media experiences and her powerful backstory is a political record that paints a different picture.

There’s no doubt that many of Labour’s policy commitments in the National Education Service (NES) have been transformative. The NES made a charter which stated that education was a public good and the 2019 manifesto made transformative commitments, particularly around early years and the commitment to six years free training and/or higher education.

On a central educational issue, that of academy schools, the manifesto did not follow the policy passed at conference. This would have brought all academies back under elected local education committees, restoring democratic local control over schooling. The manifesto was much vaguer on this point, making no clear commitment to fulfill conference policy.

This stance was in keeping with Angela Rayner’s position on academies which had disappointed many on the educational left.

Orchestrated by Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings in the early 2010s, academisation has seen tens of thousands of schools leave local authority control. The reform, which claimed to be about improving attainment and giving schools’ autonomy, instead increased central state control, reduced parent accountability and allowed schooling to be controlled by the super rich.

Far from condemning the reform, in 2017 Rayner called for Labour to stop resisting academisation and “move on”. For her, the academy reforms were a matter of pragmatism, not principle, as she stated, “ideology never put food on my table”.

In the same interview, Rayner argued for keeping existing grammar schools to avoid “destroying good schools”. Pause for a second to consider this – the abolition of grammar schools in most parts of the country and their replacement with comprehensive schools is one of Labour’s major educational achievements of the twentieth century. This was not a policy of the radical left, it achieved political consensus and grammar schools continued to be phased out even under Conservative governments.

To wish to preserve these schools for pragmatic purposes flies in the face of overwhelming evidence about their damaging effects where they continue to exist. It also highlights questions about what Rayner thinks a ‘good’ school actually is. Grammar schools are selective, divide young people at age 11 into distinct hierarchies and are dominated by the middle class. Only grassroots pressure at the 2019 party conference resulted in a commitment to end selective testing at 11 where it still exists.

On several issues, grassroots campaigns found themselves having to speak out to push Labour’s politics to the left. The Anti Academies Alliance, insisted that academisation was ‘central’ and Labour should not simply ‘move on’ and accept their existence. The need for a radical response to academisation, selection and other issues was disappointing to many on the left.

At the 2018 Labour conference, it was only as a result of grassroots pressure that Rayner became slightly more critical of academies. But the policy announcement was a fudge which, as Birmingham academic Richard Hatcher has pointed out, crucially made no mention of the return of democratically elected local authority control over schools. Just a few months later in March 2019, Rayner still ‘hadn’t decided’ whether academies should be brought back under local democratic control.

Even if this was not going to be a central election pledge on education, why oppose the necessity of bringing all academies under some form of locally elected governance? Rayner’s reluctance to challenge a model of schooling that has nothing to do with attainment and everything to do with dismantling local democratic governance, here needs an explanation. Academies are opposed by the National Education Union and unions have campaigned alongside local communities to oppose academisation.

Developing the radical ideas necessary to transform a now deeply marketised, undemocratic system of education just didn’t happen. Yes, there were big important policy announcements on tuition fees, adult learning and Further Education Colleges, but the policy detail that would have put power back in the hands of educators, students and local communities was not there.

As one of the coordinators of the Abolish Eton campaign, I find Rayner’s attitude towards our motion on private schools very telling in this regard. On the eve of Labour Party Conference in 2019, Rayner claimed,“I don’t see my role as watering-down during compositing”.

But Rayner’s actions showed this to be untrue and she tried to undermine our motion, keeping our delegates up till past midnight when they refused to give in. In her critical discussion of Corbyn, Rayner pledged not to “speak in soundbites” and that “you’ll always know where I stand”. This just wasn’t our experience. Meeting with the private schools lobby before any serious meeting with the campaign was also frustrating. Why would you talk directly to the well-funded private schools lobby before meeting a small grassroots campaign on the same issue?

Rayner’s statement during the first deputy leadership debate that “schools spend too much time teaching colonialism and not enough time teaching our own democracy” brought rightful outrage. She then tried to clarify her statement re-stating her support for the teaching of the legacy of the empire. Was this a slip in the middle of a debate? Could it have been an attempt to criticise Gove’s curriculum? This would be the generous interpretation. But it’s hard to buy this argument when we have seen this pattern of making comments on race and education that play to the right, and then backtracking, before.

In an earlier interview with The Spectator, Rayner argued that policies seeking to overcome educational inequalities for women and ethnic minorities had had a “negative impact on the food chain [for] white working [class] boys”. There was an attempt to back down from this position but if you give an interview like this to a rightwing magazine, then it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that you know what you’re doing.

The last few days have only clarified and reinforced Rayner’s position on race and internationalism. This has included comments opposing open borders in education and that instead the focus should be on skills for ‘our own kids’. Her extended interview with ITV gave a much more detailed impression of her broader politics. She compared herself quite explicitly to ‘populist’ figures like Trump and Farage, emphasised law and order and said Labour’s foreign policy should “get the best for Britain”. It might be cleverly phrased, with enough caveats to keep her potential support base broad, but this has more than a whiff of left nationalism. There is not space here to explore her broader politics further, but those who came into the party to vote for Corbyn should be concerned.

Labour’s only education affiliate, the Socialist Education Association, has now endorsed Richard Burgon ahead of Angela Rayner. There are clear reasons why the educational left is not convinced by her.  Having a good backstory and performing well in the media only goes so far. What matters in the end is politics. A careful reading of Rayner’s record as shadow education minister should make Labour members think twice.

Sol Gamsu is a sociology lecturer and a co-founder of Abolish Eton/Labour Campaign Against Private Schools.

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