I interview Angela Rayner, the Shadow Education Secretary, for the forthcoming edition of The Spectator. I met her before Christmas and was fascinated by the way she explains her politics in terms of her biography. She tells me how much she owes to a welfare state that was there for her, in a way that it wasn’t for her mum, who left school aged 12. She worked her way up, and says a few Tories ask her why she isn’t a Conservative. Simple, she says: Labour is the party of the helping hand, and the Tories are not very sympathetic to single parents like her. The ones who’ve made it: sure, Tories like them. They like success. But those who still struggle? Who might not be so successful? Only Labour stands for them.
I could have ran four pages words of interview with her. She’s a fascinating character, a fighter who’ll go berserk against shoesellers who run out of Star Wars novelty high heels – yet someone also talks openly about love, its power, and the effect of its absence when she was growing up. One of the few who stood with Jeremy Corbyn when everyone else was resigning, but someone who still refuses to sign Momentum's loyal pledge. She talks, Blair-style, about pragmatism before ideology. But her pragmatism is anything but Blairite. Even the Tories admit she’s the most effective Labour Shadow Education Secretary for a generation. She was named Rising Star of the Year in the Spectator 2017 Parliamentarian of the Year awards.
But there is one point in particular that I think her thoughts deserve longer exposure than I could fit in the magazine. It’s an open secret in Westminster that the white working-class school attainment is becoming a huge problem, but one that well-heeled Tories don’t feel they can talk about lest they come across as sneering or snobbish. Especially if the problem is of white working-class culture, and failure to value education as much as poor immigrant children.
But Ms Rayner talks about white working class as “we” and is able to speak about this problem with a force and candour that others are not. Here’s the section of our interview.
How has your thinking changed on schools? You don’t sound completely against the Academy programme.
No, I’m much more of a pragmatist about the National Education Service. I am not interested in structures, I am more interested in standards because that’s how you improve. I am much more focused on the London Challenge and what were the best bits of that.
It is a strange thing isn’t it, what went right in the capital. Was it the competition between the schools? My own personal theory is that a lot was down to immigration. You find some schools where the results have shot up because all East Africans have come along.
The culture towards migrant families towards education is considerably different to the culture of British families, that’s something I’ve noticed - I’m from a white working class background: our culture. And I think that’s why white working class boys aren’t doing so well at the moment.
The UCAS tables have them literally at the bottom of the heap. A real problem.
I think it’s because as we’ve tried to deal with some of the issues around race and women’s agendas, around tackling some of the discrimination that’s there, it has actually had a negative impact on the food chain [for] white working boys. They have not been able to adapt. Culturally, we are not telling them that they need to learn and they need to aspire. They are under the impression that they don’t need to push themselves in the way that maybe the disadvantaged groups had to before. I think that is why there is a bit of a lag there. I think we need to do much more about the culture of white working class in this country.
Sajid Javid’s mother is illiterate and she came over, like his dad, from Bangladesh. She still marched him to the library after school and made sure that he studied.
Whereas my mum didn’t do that. My mum was illiterate, she still is. She didn’t have the skills to be able to make that sort of conscious decision, so she wasn’t able to see for herself that giving me an education would save me from some of the issues that she had.
You said the immigrants’ culture of learning is different from white working class learning. But is it possible to change that culture?
I think it is. But I think you also have to change the whole culture of the education system - and society in general that has this snobbery towards a particular group, occupation and class. I think class is still an issue in this country. Middle class white families understand education is important. That is why they will spend a huge amount of money on getting themselves either into the locality where there is the best school. Or they will spend money on getting a private or grammar education for their child - because they understand that education is important. Whereas the working class: well, some of them do understand it. But it’s not just about the understanding but ability. I have a real problem with the fragmented system at the moment which says that we’ll grade schools. Parents end up on this merry-go-round where they think they’ve got a choice. But there was no choice for a child like me. I was going to my local school: end of. There was no choice for me where I was going to go and they are the children who are let down by the current system. Or take free schools: my parents were never going to be pushy enough to be able to create a school that I would be going to. There is a whole issue around making sure that we build an education system that actually invests the most in the areas that most need it. Places that tend to not to have so many pushy parents.
More in tomorrow's magazine.