Radio 4’s Two Rooms shows how Labour is getting it right

Last night I took part in BBC Radio 4’s soft focus pre-election programme Two Rooms, along with Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator ( which now, rather amusingly, calls itself ‘ the oldest continuously published magazine..’) The basic premise of the programme is that two groups of people – one broadly optimistic about their lives , one much less so – sit in two separate rooms debating the same issues. You could call it the Two Nations – Sort Of. Very post-ideological, very Radio 4.

In the first programme, which broadcast some moving stories of terrible poverty in Britain 2015, the Two Rooms talked about personal finance; last night the group discussed education and opportunity.

it was an interesting, if frustrating experience. (Recording took four hours – so the programme was heavily edited.) Many in Room A, to which I was assigned, were older and had come out into a (relatively) buoyant job market, where qualifications had some meaning and provided them with a ladder of opportunity. One participant had re-trained, via an access course, to become a physiotherapist. One quiet mid-life woman described how she had gone from her comprehensive to Cambridge, where she was very unhappy, but said that her education had opened up all sorts of opportunities as a result. There was only one privately educated person in the room. From Northern Ireland, he lacked the air of entitlement that so often surrounds his English counterparts.

What these stories showed, I argued, was the impact of recent, and often dramatic, cuts in everything from access courses to career guidance, not to mention well paying jobs; hence the experience of Room B, where those in possession of a degree could not even get any employment, even at the minimum wage. One younger member of Room A spoke at length, and very movingly, about how, at every stage of his life, it was the welfare state that had saved him: free secondary education, help with council housing and social services.

Interestingly, we were there to discuss education but hardly anyone mentioned it, except in the briefest and most personal terms (‘my history teacher really helped me’). There were few complaints about state schools and no mention at all of the last five years of upheaval in our schools under the Coalition. Nor, I am sad to say, did the Radio 4 include my report on the findings of a recent LSE/Manchester University study, by Dr Ruth Lupton among others, that the end result of the Coalition’s prolonged experiment in marketisation has been a marginal increase in the results of the brightest, and a corresponding dip in the results of children from more deprived families. After all that!

That the Coalition education revolution has spluttered to a halt was, however, reflected both in the quiescence and frustration of Both Rooms. Fraser Nelson, a Gove enthusiast, was keen to talk about the transformational impact of a good education, but the ordinary British citizens in Rooms A and B know better. They know that education alone, particularly in a grossly hierarchical system – and not just of schools, but increasingly of universities- cannot fix the problem of opportunity.

There was not a single mention of academies, free schools, bring-back-the-grammars………but plenty of talk about the injustice of unpaid internships, the way education is turning into a business, the need for properly paid work experience, and the need for expert personal and career guidance. Both rooms expressed emotions between dismay and disgust at the fact that a child from a private school has a 200 to 1 chance of getting into Oxbridge while a child at a state school has only a 2000 to 1 chance. A pity then that neither of the rooms came up with a proposal to abolish, or restrict state subsidy, of private schools.

How does any of this fit with the upcoming General Election? Education is proving a rather second order issue, as if the nation itself is worn out with Gove-ite exhortation. Apart from an increase in proper apprenticeships ( which all agreed upon), Fraser Nelson could only really come up with some very second order proposals, such as more speakers in schools, and internships for those from poorer families.

Nelson seems to think that if only the poor, benighted state school graduates could get access to the wonderful contacts and networks of the privately educated, all will be well. This seems to me a profound mis-reading of the way social networks, and privilege, work. It takes a lifetime of opportunity, support, second and third chances to create a Boris Johnson – not one shot at listening to the editor of Spectator at a lunchtime sixth form careers fair.

But if the political right have run out of meaningful answers for the problems of education and employment, something much more interesting is happening over in the progressive/Labour camp. Just this morning, Tristram Hunt announced a potentially exciting development in Labour policy that fits perfectly with the concerns expressed in Two Rooms.

Building on the slow, patient work of recent years, like the Heads Roundtable and the Husbands review, Labour have now come out strongly in favour of moving towards a baccalaureate structure for the 14-19 years, suggesting that they might eventually phase out GCSEs (no longer fit for modern purpose) in favour of a diploma style qualification that will embrace both vocational and academic pathways.

This modern, flexible structure will indeed provide those more vocationally oriented with a pathway to pursue but within the context of a good general education. Within this scheme, every student will have to continue with maths and English to 18, as well as develop certain personal skills and undertake an extended project. The Bacc structure offers a much more challenging and flexible programme of learning and is one that those in both Rooms A and B might have benefitted from, and would, I am sure, support.