Okay, I just can’t wait to share this one because I think it was a brilliant interview and Stephen is a very interesting man! Enjoy!
L: With the proposed changes to the GCSE system what is the Labour party doing to protect young people?
S: I think it’s a very good way of putting the question because the big fear with what was leaked to the Daily Mail two weeks ago now is a return to an even more divided system. We know we have a system which is still very divided because of someone’s family background remains the biggest factor on how well they do in school and then in later life. If you go back to how it was when I was at school, where at 14 you were told if you were doing O-Levels or CSEs would be a disaster – socially a disaster but also economically and educationally a disaster. The latest scientific research shows that people’s brains develop at different stages. So to label someone, in a sense as a failure, at 14 is bad education policy, bad economics but also deeply divisive socially so we’ll oppose anything like that. But obviously part of being in opposition is to oppose but the other part is to come up with something better. I think it’s very important that we have examinations and assessments that are generally by the community, by parents, by students, by employers, by higher education.. Maybe we need to strengthen what you need to do to get an A Grade at GCSE and if the evidence shows that I’ll support that. I don’t think you need to abolish GCSEs to achieve that you can strengthen and support GCSEs. But the problem we have in this country isn’t about the people who get As. Actually all the international research shows that young people who do well in this country do as well as young people who do well in other countries. Our problem is the big gap between the top and the bottom so we need to look at how we can motivate those who aren’t getting the As and the Bs to be doing better. That’s partly about how good teaching is at schools and colleges which still varies too much but it’s partly about what’s offered and the choices available to young people at 13 and 14 and it’s partly about the advice and guidance young people get at crucial stages of their school and college career. And of course what the government has done is to remove the requirement for face to face guidance so at the very least it’s not going to improve and in all likelihood it’s going to get worse. What we’ve got to do is make a case for GCSEs that have credibility, proper advice and guidance for young people and a decent range of choices that include academic and non academic subjects for everyone. I worry a lot about skills as well as knowledge about practical skills – I’m someone who did well academically and I’m completely impractical! I think I would have benefited at schools with an emphasis on doing practical things. And sometimes it’s labelled as practical id for those who can’t do academic but we all need to do well in practical skills just to live our lives as young people and as adults but the economy needs people with a broad range of skills now than was the case 30 – 40 years ago. So they’re talking about a curriculum which may have been relevant to the 1950s, question mark, certainly isn’t relevant to the 21st Century.
L: Although, I have to agree with some of what they’re doing in part. I sat GCSEs and for my Core and Additional Science it was 20 minute multiple choice exams where as other schools were doing long more vigorous exams and I think the exam board competition can be damaging to both young people and the schools.
S: That’s a very good point and the real risk is that competition amongst exam boards becomes a race to the bottom like what you just described. Are there then incentives for schools to go for the shorter easier exams over the harder, longer exams? We’ll see what the government come up with but I said in the debate we staged last week that if there’s something that stops that race to the bottom we’ll support it. Interestingly the select committee has come up with a different solution: They’ve rejected the single exam board they’ve said there should be a single syllabus. I’m interested in looking at their idea as well as anything the government comes up with because there is the worry with a single exam board that you lose innovation and the downside to competition is the race to the bottom but the up side could be that it encourages innovation and best practise. So it might be that the select committee has some up with something that has the best of both worlds.
L: Should young people be taught politics?
S: Yes. It makes people nervous and sounds like an indoctrination. When I was a minister, literally 10 years ago, we launched citizenship education as part of the curriculum. Part of the thinking was political literacy. The Crick Report by Bernard Crick was written for David Blunkett and he remains the biggest advocate for citizenship. Citizenship education was partly about politics but also about the community, volunteering and things like that. Now you’ll probably know from your own experience that some schools did really embrace it but I think it’s fair to say that most didn’t. And I’m disappointed by that and we need to learn from it. I still want there to be good citizenship education in schools that includes political literacy. If it’s called something different I don’t mind – I’m not hung up on the label. I think that you should learn different political ideas, different parties, how you get involved, local government, pressure groups, things that you probably study in your life but this is more for people who aren’t studying politics. Politics in schools isn’t just about what you do in the class room, my first involvement was at school, we had an amnesty international group and when I was 12/13 I joined and during our breaks we would spend our time writing letters to presidents of fascist regimes who were locking people up for their views. And that to me was small ‘p’ politics, not party politics and I’d love to see more of that kind of thing alongside proper teaching of politics. Also, like other MPs I visit schools and when I go to schools and you talk to young people including primary schools about what it is to be an MP and how it works that to me is teaching about politics not indoctrination, if anything we all ultra careful when we visit schools not to be really partisan because you want young people to learn, you’re not there to tell them.
L: You mentioned citizenship; do you think citizenship should be reformed to include proper teaching of financial, sexual and political education?
S: That’s vitally important, I think part of this is how we label things so something are labelled as citizenship some as PSHE so I think we’ve tended to divide the politics into citizenship then sex and money in to PSHE. And it’s a bit of an artificial divide, it’s funny because when you came in I’m doing a speech tomorrow to the Stonewall Education Conference about homophobia in education but one of the things I’m going to talk about is citizenship and PSHE. And on Monday I was at a school in Wiltshire the Royal Wootton Bassett Academy and they have a massive emphasis on PSHE they were having a day which each year was doing a different element of PSHE and one year was doing personal finance, another sex and relations another drugs education. That’s quite unusual in my experience that a school would devote an entire day and they do that five times a year. I would really like to encourage a lot to do that. I was there because they had a Holocaust survivor speaking to year 9 so I think they were doing the Holocaust, genocide and possible broader issues around prejudice and discrimination. The finance thing is so important, that something Ed Balls did a lot on right at the end of the period of Labour in Government. It’s so important at any time but with the economic issues we’ve got not and we’re going to have for the foreseeable future it’s even more important than ever.
L: How can we encourage more young people to become more politically active or at least politically aware?
S: They are two different things; you would hope that greater awareness would at least encourage some to become active. I think there’s a tendency for politics and politicians to be quite patronising towards young people and having been involved myself as a young person in the 80s and seeing hoe tings have developed since then there’s often a tendency to see young people as having ‘youth issues’. I’ve always been very weary of this; obviously there are things that effect young people that are different to in their 30s, 50s or 70s. But actually the things that young people are worried about aren’t completely separate to that middle aged people are worried about. The world they live in, the economy, the chance to get a job and earn an income, crime… Young people get labelled as criminals but are also the main victims of crime and anti-social behaviour. I think one of the things is for us politicians to avoid the danger of patronising and trying o treat young people as they’re in some type of youth ghetto. Treating them with respect I suppose in terms of opinions on subjects. The other thing is, this is much more, for the parties and politicians to let go and enable young people to get involved in the ways they want to get involved and therefore youth leadership would develop. And then there is that politics isn’t just about political parties and whilst I think it’s brilliant that lots of young people have joined the Labour Party in the last two years, and I’ve seen it in my own constituency, a massive growth in the youth membership in Liverpool West Derby. Loads more young people are just as political as those that have joined the party but they choose not to join a party and they might want to get involved in campaigning on provision in their area or campaigning on amnesty international or international issues. We need to find ways where we can positive and welcoming in all the different ways that young people want to get involved and not just see it as being about the party. Although, from a party point of view it’s so good that young people have joined and on that the party needs to change so that young people stay involved. I think there’s a risk with the Labour Party’s bureaucracy some young people may find it quite off putting. And the culture of the Labour party needs to be welcoming of all new people not just young people but particularly young people.
L: You mentioned that you started out in politics as a young person could you describe your story from starting young to being the Shadow Secretary of State for Education?
S: I joined the Labour Party when I was 15 so that was 1982 so it was the early years of the Thatcher government, I lived in quite a conservative area in the suburbs of London so not a lot of people joined the Labour party but I got brilliant experience and has great fun being involved with the young labour group in the area. We were small in number but we’d go on demonstrations, I remember Thatcher coming to visit a local hospital and we went with our young labour banner! That 2 or 3 years through what’s now year 11 through to sixth form I learn a lot being involved in the Labour Party as a young person. So then I went to university to study PPE, I went from a comprehensive to Oxford which was quite interesting itself. My school was quite a middle class comprehensive but it didn’t generally send kids to Oxford and Cambridge, I went there with some nervousness as to what it would be like because of the public school/private school domination. But I had an amazing time and that’s when I got very involved in politics, I didn’t really study enough! I got through and Labour Students was a big part of my life then and I went from there to student politics and the President of the NUS. I got in the sense from the age of 15 – 25 an amazing set of experiences locals and then in the NUS which then took me into mainstream politics and I had the opportunity at the time where I lived for a local council by-election, so I put myself forward and become a councillor at 25 which while I was working for Amnesty International. Then at 30 was the 1997 general election I stood in my home seat against Michael Portillo and never thought I would win because it was true blue! But the scale of the landslide was such that I did win and so I got the change to be an MP way younger than I ever expected and had 8 years, 4 as a minister. Going back to the beginning, when I joined at 15 I didn’t think this is a career, I didn’t think I want to be an MP that obviously became something I started to think later but the immediate thing was this is what Thatcherism is doing to the country. Also at the time there was a genuine fear of nuclear war because there was this build up of nuclear arms between America and Russia. It’s hard not to explain the sense of that because it sounds a bit fantastic but then it seemed very, very real. So it was about that sense of change in the world.
L: Do you think it’s difficult for young people to become politically active; although joining a party is easy is it difficult for young people to express influence over the government?
S: Yes, I think it is difficult. There’s a real issue if you look at that’s happening at the moment, that the cuts do affect young people far more than they affect other sections of society. We’ve got the granny tax and the tax to tax credits that effect working families but the combination of EMA and tuition Fees and cuts to subsidised transport there was a whole series of things that were done really quickly after the election in 2010. I do think there’s something in the arguments that part of the reason the government do that is because young people are far less likely to vote. I think the figures in the last two or even three elections show turnout between 18 – 24 year olds at 40% perhaps less whereas over 65 is probably 75 or 80%. So there is that barrier, but I think in some ways that it is much better than when I was your age. The 80s I did join the Labour party and I think the next youngest person was probably 50! I think the culture, I can only speak for the Labour party, the culture of the party on average at a local level is much better than it was 30 years ago. I think it’s more welcoming of young people than it was. It still does vary and there’s still places where if someone walks through the door and they haven’t been around for the past 20 years everyone is suspicious of who is this new person, what is there agenda? So I’m really keen that young labour becomes a much more vibrant and dynamic part of the party. So there’s a youth voice in the party. Your main question of how you actually influence decision makers and how you change things are that have an effect, I genuinely think that the development of the things like youth Parliament, local schools parliament, even school councils that is the big, big development from the last 10/15 years and is all for the good. Certainly in Liverpool who has a well developed Schools Parliament, they are active and they take up the things – the previous Lid Dem council was trying to cut subsidised transport for 16 – 18 year olds and there was a brilliant campaign that got them to back down and it really was led by the young people. That’s real political leadership on something that directly effects young people and matters to them and the more we can have that the better.
L: So when they want to young people can have real influence?
S: It can, I think there are still barriers, there are bigger barriers for young people than older people but frankly our democracy faces a lot of challenges and there’s less faith in it than there used to be and there are barriers for people of all ages. But that’s something us involved in formal politics need to work harder to overcome. I remember a 17 year old coming to my advice surgery a few months ago and it was like wow a 17 year old has come! I said to him it’s the first time I’ve ever known a young person come on their own to see me. I think we’ve got to as MPs to think how we reach young people and how we make our selves accessible to young people. Maybe a surgery isn’t something a young person would think of as being for them but it’s just as much for young people as it is for an older person. But where do we go when we’re in out constituency on a Friday? Are we going to the places where we’ll meet young people? I go to schools and colleges a lot and that’s great but there are the young people that aren’t in education and how am I going to meet them? Because their voices need to be heard because in a sense they’ve been let down by the system and how can we learn from them as well as learning from the ones who are on the courses to go to university.
L: Do you agree with votes at 16?
S: Yes. I don’t think it’s a cure all I don’t think it will solve our problems. I don’t think it’s fair to say to people, okay our education leaving age is going up but still some young people will be working – you can work but you can’t have a say on how tax is spent. I think that’s the basic democratic argument, I also think there’s a case to say that if you can engage young people at a young age then they’re more likely to remain engaged. I remember there was some research some years ago but I can’t remember who did it, that seemed to suggest that 16 year olds may be more likely to vote than 18 and 19 year olds, and you can sort of see the logic.
L: Do we allow 16 year olds to be candidates too?
S: That is a fair point, and it has been the case in the past where we’ve had a different age to vote and candidacy and that’s been brought in to line now but it was 18 for voting and 21 for a candidate but that was changed, quite recently. So you could, if the view was, 16 and 17 year olds shouldn’t be candidates you could keep that discrepancy. I think in reality if you allowed them to be candidates you’d get some really remarkable people coming through. It wouldn’t be a bad thing. And you’ve still got to go through the selection process for the party. It’s a fair point but I’m pretty relaxed about 16 and 17 year old candidates and I suppose including for MP. Although in reality the minimum age is 18 but sometimes 23/24 year olds get elected to parliament. In ’97 there were two MPs who were 24. And Charles Kennedy when he was first elected back in 83 was 23/24. So in practise if you’d get very many people becoming MPs much younger than 22/23 I doubt because the parties end to have competitive processes for seats so it’s possible but quite unlikely for teenage MPs. You’d have to be pretty exceptional to get that far so good luck!
L: Does the media portrait of young people create a handicap for young people to express themselves – Pamela Nash is the youngest Mp, baby of the house, but also according to a report the worst MP. But also the student riots most young people are labelled as a thug.
S: Exactly, I think the media have a big responsibility n how they portray young people and what the issues that interest the media. I’ve had issues in my part of Liverpool with gun crime and we had a murder a few weeks ago. And it filled page after page but the people who live in that community obviously gun crime is serious and they want it dealt with but the vast majority are decent people and the majority of young people are decent people doing loads of interesting and good things but getting media coverage for the good and interesting things is very, very difficult. Which is frustrating. I think it’s particularly challenging with the press and I think you can get more positive converging with broadcast media and even television and radio they tend to go for the big stories on crime and the riots last year were a classic example of that. I’m not saying you go to another extreme and paint everything as wonderful when there are problems because that wouldn’t be fair either. But I think there’s a balance to be struck which isn’t being struck in the right place at the moment. And I suppose with new and social media there are more opportunities for young people to directly speak for themselves which has an enormously positive side. There was a lot of talk about how various forms of social media were used to mobilise people for the riots but we also know it’s used for peaceful protest in the Arab Spring and the counteractions to the riots and ‘reclaim the streets’ was organised through social media. There were young people in my patch who went to the areas of Liverpool which had riots and went to do the clear up and organised it through Facebook. So I do think new forms of media can give young people their own voice and that’s good but we shouldn’t let the old forms of media of the hook they do have a responsibility as well.
L: Any advice for any young person who’s thinking of becoming more politically active?
S: My advice is to always get involved regardless if they want to join other political parties that are fine. It’s about being involved. I’d rather have lots of thriving youth sections if political parties and I’d say get involved locally because that’s the most straightforward way to do it and get involved in the things you want to do. Don’t feel compelled to go to endless meeting if that’s not what interests you. A lot of young people prefer the campaigning side whether that’s the party campaign knocking on doors, leafleting or pressure group campaigning with demonstrations and petitions and so on. From my experience just do what you want to do and enjoy it. If you’re getting involved at 15, 17 or 19 it’s got to be fun or if you’re not enjoying it don’t do it.