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Labour Party Conference 2018: National Education Service and a tale of Two Cultures

Report from the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool 2018.

The gathering earlier this week in Liverpool marked the largest conference in the history of the Labour Party. The sheer size of the packed hall must have taken the breath away from the many first time delegates attending. It was impressive and had the atmosphere of an impatient government in waiting.

Brexit crisis the main focus.

The issue of Brexit and the impassioned call for a people’s vote dominated the event. On Sunday a massive demonstration of pro EU supporters of all ages and from all walks of life descended on the venue. A sizeable delegation stayed outside the main entrance throughout and pressed delegates to back a new referendum.

Inside the hall, events unfolded in dramatic style. One hundred and fifty Labour constituencies had arrived with motions that they had passed to call for a people’s vote on Brexit. Some wanted a new referendum. Delegates sat for six hours on Sunday evening to thrash out a composite motion to be put to the hall on Tuesday. This was a historic event that sets Labour on the road to a general election and a likely people’s vote if no deal is the sorry outcome from a failed minority government. The quote of the conference went to the Labour Shadow Brexit minister, Keir Starmer who said in his speechnobody is ruling out REMAIN as an option”.

This addition was reported as unscripted but it caught the mood of the vast majority of delegates from across the UK as the short video link below demonstrates well.
He is right to demand this. Brexit will restrict movement of our citizens across Europe. Valuable educational and career opportunities will be lost to those without the means to pay for the escalating travel and other costs. The experience of the diversity of cultures across Europe will be lost to the increasing numbers of financially disadvantaged. However, the well-off will no doubt continue to avail themselves of experiences and educations opportunities as if nothing has happened. Brexit will drive an even greater wedge of social division into our society.

A National Education Service is a firm commitment.

The most important speech on education was naturally from the shadow education secretary and former successful care worker, Angela Rayner. In her speech, she endorsed the plan to set up a National Education Service. (Full text is here courtesy of Schools Week). The speech was relatively short and only referred to Higher Education once.
She said:
“But I know from my own life that sometimes people need a second chance later in life. So we’ll provide not just free higher education but free further education. And we’ll ask experts from across the field to join our lifelong learning commission, led by our Shadow Minister Gordon Marsden. Because we’re not afraid to hear from experts. In fact, we welcome it.”

The contrast to the Government's position could not be starker. However, some observers seemed confused and one noted that he hadn’t the “foggiest” what it was about. Yet all of the discussions in the hall and at the many fringe meetings were in the context of the earlier well publicised National Education Service plans in the manifesto. Not much has changed. Angela Rayner simply went ‘further’ to include free Further Education and added to the manifesto's earlier commitments. They are as clear as crystal and are radical in their aspiration. Lifelong learning will be a priority from ‘cradle to grave’. For university education, “Labour will reintroduce maintenance grants for university students, and we will abolish university tuition fees. University tuition is free in many northern European countries, and under a Labour government, it will be free here too.”

Fringe discussions.

The bulk of the detailed discussion on education took place at the many fringe events. A lively debate on the ‘National Education Service: how to deliver for universities, colleges and students’ set the tone. NUS President Shakira Martin lit up the room with her spirited delivery. She ended up getting everyone in the room chanting what turned out to be a mixture of “investment in students is an investment for our future/in all of us”. Sitting next to her was Professor David Pheonix, the chair of the Million Plus universities and VC of the South Bank University. He was most likely the only scientist that I encountered across the whole conference (a very well respected scientist and a fellow Biochemist and Microbiologist). He too seemed somewhat uncomfortable in the surroundings (see ‘where are the scientists?’ below). But he defended well some difficult and somewhat personal criticisms from the floor that were frankly well off the topic. It was more like he was extinguishing a fire than ‘rising from the ashes’. Political commentary was ably handled by the very experienced James Frith MP (Public School and Manchester Metropolitan University Politics and Economics graduate). The inevitable conclusion was again a need for a fairer system and radical change.

The politically neutral University and Colleges Union (UCU) fringe meeting concentrated on the needless collapse of Further Education (FE) and the main case was led by the UCU President Vicki Knight. The discussion was on how FE can fight back from its current emaciated position. Despite neutrality, the direction of the rhetoric was clearly towards Labour. Indeed, at another fringe, Sally Hunt, the General Secretary of UCU, emphatically stressed the union’s stance of no fees for higher and further education. Thus backing the Labour party stance emphatically.

The real roots of social disadvantage.

Several fringe meetings looked at the plight of children in poverty. What it might mean for learning needed little explanation. Hunger and deprivation devastates education and youngsters chances. Children who start to fall behind in the early years struggle to catch up.

One meeting organised by the National Education Union and the Child Poverty Action Group asked the question, ‘Child poverty is on the increase: what does this mean for learning?’ This was the most potent debate and led me to question our humanity. It had panel members who could tell real stories of deprived conditions for school children. The General Secretary of the NEU, Mary Bousted comes from a humble area of Bolton herself and rose to become a teacher and then leader. Alison Garnham, the Chief Executive at Child Poverty Action Group UK was emotional when describing the inexorable rise in child poverty linked to government policies such as the infamous ‘universal credit’ scheme. The evidence is in and government has little excuse for its actions.

Children going hungry is a devastating and comprehensive brake on learning. The conclusion reached by me was that government ministers on the conservative side have no real understanding or experience of what it means whilst extolling the virtues of ‘Social Mobility’. I was thinking “less pie in the sky and more pie on the plate” would help. In contrast, the Shadow Education Minister responsible for children and families' policy, Emma Louise Lewell-Buck (graduate in politics and media studies at Northumbria University and master's in social work from Durham University), was on hand to reassure  us this would all change under Labour. Her various recent counterparts in the Conservative government, owner of Timpson’s shops, wealthy farmer and founder of YouGov, might struggle at understanding this challenge. We learned that UNICEF was looking closely at child poverty in the UK as the ‘UK was not yet meeting its international obligations to UK children’. This is a stunning embarrassment that surely must be acted upon.

Where are the scientists?

University education is a multifaceted enterprise encompassing many subjects and disciplines. The clue is in the name. It involves numerous scientists, engineers and biomedical professionals as much as it involves humanities or the social sciences. Yet it became apparent that the issues were mainly viewed from a somewhat blinkered humanities perspective. This is a serious problem that seemed to abound across much of the conference.

A good example of this was a fringe discussion organised by the New Statesman ‘Open to all: making the case for higher education’. It was clear that the debate was to be blinkered from the start by a very humanities centred perspective. As a scientist, I immediately felt alienated by both the content and especially the conduct of the meeting. It seemed that it was not inherently ‘open to all’. No scientific meeting on such an important topic would be so perfunctory in its delivery. Anoosh Chakelian, a journalist and Oxford History Graduate, Dr Graeme Atherton, Director of NEON (National Education Opportunities Network) and Oxford PPE graduate, and Angus Holford, an economist in the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, were joined by the Shadow Universities Minister Gordon Marsden MP, educated at an Independent Grammar School and an Oxford history graduate.

Bridging the divide of esteem between vocational and academic education and qualifications was stressed several times with no real explanation. This completely excluded the simple fact that university degree science and engineering courses are inherently and necessarily vocational. My experience has been that the time demands in Science courses put even more pressure on students hampered by part-time jobs. Yet the standards have to be maintained if they are to survive in an expanding technological world. When challenged, there seemed to be bewildered faces on the panel. I checked to see if I had grown two heads later outside. It seems inevitable, however well meaning, that most are more comfortable in their own ‘cocoon’ of understanding. However, Science does not work that way. It can be, and has to be,  more direct and dispassionate in how ideas, usually presented on screens as cold evidence, are challenged.

The 'Two Cultures' persist.

Instead of a vocational vs academic divide, there seemed to be a bigger gulf between the ‘two cultures’ as originally identified by Charles (C P) Snow in 1959. Originally a Rede Lecture it grew into an influential eponymous book. Educated in Leicester Grammar School and London External Physics graduate, Snow championed the value of introducing more science into government thinking. With technology advancing fast, this seemed a simple, necessary and pragmatic idea.

We now have a minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation who is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics graduate of Oxford University. He is shadowed by no less than a Modern History graduate of Oxford University. There is incredible power vested in this minister/would be minister. Due to recent changes in government departments, via the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, the Office for Students and UK Research and Innovation come under the remit of the ministry. Thus a single minister has been given increasing powers centrally as critically discussed in TEFS 31 August 2018 ‘Office for Students or against students?’. There are obvious dangers in this approach.

I have never met Snow the Scientist, but came very close in my graduation ceremony. I was a science student graduating in 1977. He was due to hand out our degree certificates and was then 72 years old. Unfortunately he was too ill to attend but asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science to step in at the last minute. Instead I met the redoubtable Labour Minister and Oxford Graduate in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Shirley Williams. The profound irony attached to his choice of replacement did not elude me then or now. Snow sadly died three years later and I was disappointed not to have met him after reading several of his works as a student.
What would he have made of the proceedings this week? I think he might have been shocked in the light of his warnings nearly sixty years ago. His lecture resonates through to this time.

“A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”

“I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.”

Harsh words. But he must have picked the Second Law of Thermodynamics for deliberate ironic effect. Entropy is a lack of order or predictability and a gradual decline into disorder is inevitable. The second law of thermodynamics states that, in all spontaneous processes, the total entropy, and thus disorder increases and the process is irreversible. The increase in entropy accounts for the irreversibility of natural processes, and the asymmetry between future and past. Biochemists have to grapple with the apparent paradox that life on our planet appears to defy the Law but this is an illusion. Maybe politics is the same.


Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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