The Green Party needs to stand with the people of Britain in being crystal clear about the implications of the Prime Minister’s recent cabinet reshuffle. These cabinet changes are a victory of loyalty over policy, with the talk of preparation for an early election giving the game away. This is about circling the wagons, throwing the accident-prone to the journalistic wolves and making sure everyone around the campfire is ready to sing from the same song-sheet of smoke and mirrors, an unthinking, unblinking chorus of ‘you’ve never had it so good-ism’.
The people brought in have been praised for their ability to ‘fix it’. We can anticipate an absolute flood of ‘fixing’. Tweets, interviews, column inches, photo opportunities, PR stunts – all the modern paraphernalia of power will be ‘fixed’ as never before. The only thing that won’t be fixed is, of course, the problem because the root cause, the complex web of systematic environmental and social injustice, is outside of any Tory paradigm.
I want to focus on the ways in which the Greens can show they are the authentic voice of opposition in this country, both challenging the false promises this new cabinet will inevitably make and growing the trust and confidence of all of our people in Green alternatives.
Following Gavin Williamson’s blunder-filled time as Education Secretary, Johnson has introduced some new faces – Nadim Zahawi and Robin Walker – who have a number of defining characteristics. The one Johnson will be relying on is their unshakable loyalty to the idea that the quasi-privatisation of public education actually works. The Greens need to start by pointing out that if public sector education is so successful, why were both of these men educated at highly selective, eye-wateringly expensive public schools? Why are these two individuals, with not one iota of public experience between them, responsible for the education of all of the nation’s children?
When Zahawi-Walker assures us that the education system in England is ‘levelling up’, we Greens need to break this lie on the inconvenient truths. Only seven per cent of children in the UK are privately educated, yet the same seven per cent claims approximately 60 per cent of the places at Oxbridge universities. According to the most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science research, 61 per cent of our Year Nine students are in schools that report difficulties filling vacancies for Mathematics teachers. The comparative figure for Hong Kong and Singapore is 0 per cent. A 2018 study by Professor Francis Green at University College London found a three to one gap in the funding ratio between public and private sector pupils. Inequality is built into the system. To ‘level up’ means to remove these inequalities.
As the opposition, we embrace the responsibility of promoting genuine Green policies, not vacuous slogans of ‘levelling up’, but the ‘be realistic, demand the impossible’ policies which Greens know are genuinely transformative. Let’s throw down a challenge to Zahawi and Walker. If you are sincere in your promise to ‘level up’, then enable every public sector school to deliver the same advantages as the private sector.
As a teacher and then headteacher who worked in the public sector in London for 30 years, I know the paramount importance of class size. The average state secondary school has 21 students in every class, often more. A typical private school classroom has eight to 15 students. With a similar ratio here in Beijing, I can take bilingual beginners to Russell Group universities in the UK. Small class sizes work! Authentic ‘levelling up’ demands fair class sizes for all of our children.
We also need to challenge the new ministers to create fair and equal access to the learning environments of the future. The need to take learning online during the pandemic revealed tragic inequalities in terms of access to computer hardware and internet services. We Greens must demand and deliver common standards for every learner. As headmaster of a state high school in a relatively deprived area of London, I organised, with community support, a scheme to put a mobile learning device with broadband access into the hands and home of every learner. Equality can be done! E-learning represents the modern ecosystem of learning and it must be a common good for all.
Finally, what about the larger education environment of the curriculum? Independent schools have the freedom to vary the curriculum to match the interests and needs of their students. State schools are bound to deliver the national curriculum, with little lee-way to vary the learning diet to meet the organic needs of students, for example, the freedom to teach Black history. To ‘level up’, each local area needs to experience the motivation of respect and pride, and needs opportunities to embrace the contributions of diversity.
We Greens will prove a curriculum that is organic to local communities, driving higher standards of learning and achievement. This will include innovative eco-learning that not only teaches students how to be responsible stewards of local, national and international environments, but also creates opportunities for students to be active carers for their school and community, for example, through enabling every school to develop vegetable allotments or to upcycle unwanted products through design technology.
One of the biggest blights on the social landscape of our country is the historic injustice of an education system built on inequality, the very inequality from which 63 per cent of the new Cabinet have benefited. This 63 per cent know very precisely the privileges which have secured their position in the world.
We will watch the ‘re-shuffle’ become the ‘re-kerfuffle’ and be ready to puncture every puffed up claim. We will be a proactive, loyal opposition – loyal to our people, our communities, and our environment.