“Free education from cradle to grave”: John McDonnell comes to Oxford

As election campaigning gets underway across the country, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has spoken to the Oxford Student about Labour’s plans for education.

Campaigning in Oxford’s Blackbird Leys area alongside outgoing Oxford East MP Andrew Smith and a group of Labour activists on Saturday, Mr McDonnell made a speech covering a wide range of topics including the economy, NHS, Brexit, trade union laws, and childcare. He criticised the government on several issues; including accusing the Conservatives of economic mismanagement, privatisation of the NHS, and broken promises on the deficit and national debt. He said Labour was a “principled voice” and that the electorate had a “huge choice” to make about Britain’s future.

At the same time, he reaffirmed Labour’s pledges to close tax loopholes and havens, reverse what it calls ‘tax giveaways’ in the form of the cuts to inheritance tax, corporation tax, and the bank levy, and argued that this would generate £70bn for the government to spend on services and invest in the economy.

He also spoke about Labour’s pledge to create a ‘National Investment Bank’ – a scheme that would borrow approximately £100bn to be used for infrastructure projects – and a ‘National Education Service’ that would aim to enable lifelong learning.

Interviewed in the minutes after his speech, McDonnell set out Labour policy on grammar schools, private education, tuition fees, and cuts to school budgets. In recent weeks, the party has been engaged in a battle with the government over its grammar school proposals and adjustments to the funding formula for schools; and I began by asking him what Labour intends to do should it form the new government on the 8th June – particularly in relation to the £500m in funding pledged by the Conservatives for the opening of new free and grammar schools.

“When we publish our manifesto in the next few weeks, you’ll see we will have an investment strategy for our schools in particular” he said.

“The last thing we want at the moment are cuts in school budgets”.

What we want to do is ensure comprehensive education is promoted

On grammars more generally, McDonnell was keen to stress his party’s opposition.

“We don’t believe in segregation” he said.

“What we want to do is ensure comprehensive education is promoted”.

When asked whether this would mean the rolling back of existing grammar schools, of which around 160 remain and from which the Sutton Trust says 20% of Oxbridge students originated over the three years from 2012-2014, the Shadow Chancellor was noncommittal. He stressed that Labour “was in a situation now where we just don’t want the expansion; we don’t want this money wasted on segregation”, and that investment in grammars is not what the education system needs.

The interview then progressed to a discussion about a pledge on the Labour Party’s website to “bring about a progressive restoration of free education for all”. When asked about what this meant in practice, Mr McDonnell stated clearly that Labour wished to see free education – including the abolition of tuition fees – as part of the party’s approach.

Our ambition is to have free education from cradle to grave

“Our ambition is to have free education from cradle to grave” he said.

“What we want to do over a period of time is build that system”.

While neither a timetable nor an explicit funding strategy was given, the Shadow Chancellor was clear that making all education free would be an aim for a future Labour government. He argued that this would form part of building an education system that is more effectively able to produce the skills needed for the future.

When asked how this pledge of free education for all would impact on private schools, from which a stubbornly high proportion of Oxford students originate, Mr McDonnell pointed to his party’s previous suggestions that independent schools should have to do more to assist local state schools in order to maintain their charitable status; as well as Jeremy Corbyn’s recent announcement that Labour would impose VAT on private education.

While he recognised that the most recent announcement had drawn hostility from certain quarters, he argued that the policy was a popular one.

“What’s been interesting is the overwhelming support we have had right across the education sector and in the wider community” he said.

“I think that sends a message about what people’s priorities are – and they’re the priorities the Labour Party is advocating”.

The general election will be held on the 8th June.