Forgive me if I don’t get too worked up about Momentum Kids. For those who haven’t been following Labour’s internal politics too closely, Momentum is a Trotskyist faction within the party that was instrumental in getting Jeremy Corbyn elected last year and, barring an upset, re-elected this weekend. Momentum claims the main purpose of its new kiddie wing, will cater to three-year-olds and upwards, is to offer childcare facilities to women so they can get more involved in campaigning. But it also acknowledges that Momentum Kids will play an ‘educational’ role. ‘Let’s create a space for questioning, curious children where we can listen to them and give them a voice,’ says one of the group’s founders.
This initiative has been widely lampooned on Twitter and elsewhere because the notion of giving children as young as three a political education smacks of indoctrination and conjures up memories of Soviet school-children being forced to recite passages from the Communist Manifesto. And on one level, it is quite funny, not least because the hand-wringing leftists behind the group appear to be unaware of this historical baggage. It confirms the essential innocence of the Corbynistas, which, on another level, isn’t funny at all. It’s precisely because this new generation of left-wing idealists are so ignorant of history that they cannot foresee the potential dangers of trying to create a socialist utopia.
But the critics of Momentum Kids are also being naïve if they think the education children currently receive in this country is apolitical. In fact, nearly all children at state schools — and probably most at private schools, too — receive a daily dose of left-wing propaganda. Not the hard-left dogma of Momentum, but the understated, soft-left, liberal values that permeate most state-funded institutions, from the Foreign Office to the BBC. I’m thinking of cultural relativism (‘All cultures and belief systems are equally valid’), environmentalism (‘Man-made global warming is destroying the planet’) and an EU-inspired one world-ism (‘Nationalism leads to war and imperialism’).
To call the transmission of these ideas ‘indoctrination’ would be misleading, since the teachers responsible don’t think there’s anything controversial or even overtly political about them. As far as they’re concerned, they’re what every educated, responsible person believes. Indeed, if you accuse them of left-wing bias, they’re likely to become irritated and ask what values they should be teaching instead. For most of them, the only alternative to their wishy-washy secular humanism would be the kind of politics they associate with Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump. They cannot imagine a reasonable, intelligent person being a conservative because there’s no one remotely like that in their professional or social environments.
Even the Early Years Foundation Stage, mandating what children should be taught up to age five, embodies a progressive, left-of-centre approach to education. For instance, it insists that teachers take account of children’s different ‘learning styles’ and tailor the curriculum to each child’s needs. That probably doesn’t sound controversial to the layperson, but it’s based on a set of beliefs about education that date back to the Romantic movement and prioritise creativity and self-expression over knowledge and self-discipline. Not political with a capital ‘p’, perhaps, but political nevertheless.
And that’s the point these critics of Momentum Kids miss — that how children are taught and what they’re taught is never going to be completely apolitical. Even describing current education as ‘apolitical’ is vaguely political, implying as it does that the liberal-left values permeating our schools are so universal and mainstream that anyone challenging them is a bug-eyed loon. The choice we face as a society is not between a value-laden and value-free education; it’s about what values we choose to teach. There’s nothing wrong with these Corbynistas wanting children’s education to be political. Their mistake is wanting it to be even more left-wing.
My preference, and I suspect that of most parents, would be to shift the political values children are taught back towards the centre. A bit more patriotic and pro-western, a bit less internationalist and anti-capitalist. Perhaps the root of the problem on most teachers’ part is the obligation they feel to be neutral when it comes to Britain and its enemies, particularly when confronted by children of different faiths and ethnicities. Trouble is, refusing to take sides is itself a political act.