Interview with Fiona Millar

Fiona Millar is a journalist and writer who specialises in education and parenting. She’s worked on the Daily Mirror, the Express, and as a lobby correspondent. She was a special advisor to Tony Blair from 1997 to 2003. Now, among other work, she writes a column for the Guardian. She was kind enough to give some of her time to Labour Teachers.

How did you get involved in education? 

Apart from my own schooling, I got involved in education as a parent governor in the 1990s when my children started at what turned out to be a failing primary school. We were one of the first schools ever to undergo an Ofsted inspection which revealed serious weaknesses and led to a huge upheaval in staff, parents and the school’s reputation. It was the beginning of schools being part of a quasi market in education with diversity and choice as the mantras for decades to come. It was a very formative period for me, which I have written about in the Guardian and in my book “The Best for My Child”. Most of what I know about education is rooted in my experience as a governor and in my local community. I count myself very lucky to be able to specialise in this particular policy area as a journalist.

You are no longer a member of the Labour Party, why?

A combination of Brexit policies, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and the failure to tackle antisemitism in the party led me to quit several years ago.

What would it take for you to return to the party?

…at the moment the Party isn’t inspiring me enough to consider it!

I am not sure, I quite like not being tied down by party membership. For the first time in my life I didn’t vote Labour in the European Elections of 2019 and it was quite liberating to be able to do what I really believed was right, rather than feeling obliged to act in a certain way because of what had become quite an arbitrary tie. I daresay that decision would be held against me even if I wanted to return but at the moment the Party isn’t inspiring me enough to consider it!

If you could have one change in education policy what would it be?

I would probably choose serious reform of the 14-19 period in secondary education along the lines of a final baccalaureate/diploma rather than continuing with A levels, GCSEs and the huge British problem of low status vocational qualifications. A final award that encompassed academic and vocational pathways AND wider curriculum/enrichment areas such as the arts, sport, civic activities would re-energise the entire secondary school experience for so many young people. It would also help us to move on from the current shameful situation where a third of pupils are condemned to leave school as failures according to an exam system which, post COVID, many people are seeing is failing in itself.

Ok, I’ll give you another, what would be your second change?

Reform of school admissions. The English system has always been bedevilled by a steep hierarchy of schools in part because so many can either select their intake covertly or overtly like the grammar schools. The 11 plus should be abolished as a first step with a pledge for a fully comprehensive system at the heart of any Labour manifesto. Selection of any sort has no part in a fair education system.

What’s something you’ve changed your mind the most about regarding education? 

I have always thought the academy model, with schools taken out of local oversight and handed over to sponsors and contracted to the government, was a terrible mistake. Most people probably agree now that they seen what Michael Gove and the Tories have done with a reform that was intended by Labour to be very different. Nevertheless I reluctantly accept that, as there are so many academies and free schools, they are here to stay but we need to find a way to ensure there is better local oversight, that they play their part in the local family of schools and are obliged to follow the same rules.


John Ruskin: History’s greatest art teacher

Stepping through the live-lesson looking-glass and into a real world of bubbles and distances will not be an unmixed blessing for many of us. The early twenties have been an attack on the feeling that being a teacher means anything real at all. Protecting the NHS means clapping as is being prepared for market, fish are a symbol of national pride as they rot in docks and our students are facing higher hurdles to working the other side of newly imagined barriers: this means freedom. Last summer awarded grades by an algorithm that favoured the rich, and then not, because it displeased the rich because that was “realistic”

All of us who became teachers because we believed that art made children powerful have faced the hokey-cokey of lockdowns with an attenuated grip on what it’s really all about. As I prepare to watch a real child’s hand make real marks on paper again I am trying to remember history’s greatest art teacher, someone who believed that it was worth looking at what was real. On the roughest days I have the very great privilege of being able to see white space becoming something undeniably real and valuable and I need him to  teach me, again, to see it.

John Ruskin the art-critic is best remembered for championing JMW Turner. Turner himself got to be on the twenty because his paintings are now a viable investment vehicle. In his life he once failed to get a knighthood because a commission to paint a battleship as a potent symbol of British sovereignty depicted actual casualties. 

The signature photoshopped onto money is the one that Turner signed his will with; the will that left a vast collection of his work to the people of Britain. Ruskin was executor for that will and it remains contentious today because giving stuff to people was a weird idea. The stipulation that some of the money should go to starving artists remains unfulfilled: maybe that’s why our government is creating more of them, the Tate family having made quite enough money from all that slave sugar. 

Ruskin is claimed by more than the rarified world of art criticism though; the environmental movement, the welfare state, Christian socialism, the early labour party and Ghandi all claim him as an influence. So did Cecil Rhodes but that is, as we say today; problematic. 

Ruskin is not unproblematic himself. It will be hard to recruit him to either side of the new entirely made-up War on Woke. He wrote extensively that equality for women meant that the Sphere of Female Power (the household) deserved the same respect as Male Power (everything else). On the other hand he believed that the richness of a people was embodied in its stone, cut and raw, and that statuary was a repository of history: hard to imagine he would support the idea that the plaques no-one reads in national trust properties should be free of the discomfort of the truth. His feelings on a potato’s gender can only be guessed at. 

He leaves us a prolific body of work and, forgive me John, hated quotation out of context. The early passages on Turner need to be read in full to appreciate; you can feel him grappling with Turner’s genius, he almost grudgingly accepts that yes, that isn’t realistic but it’s the truth. The truth of what light does when you know how to really look. 

In a later review Ruskin would savage the work of James Abbott McNeill Whistler for being technically brilliant but disinterested in saying anything true. Whistler sued and Whistler won but it’s Ruskin I need now.

“I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw.” 

It is for that respect for truth that I claim him, as I look forward to seeing children fill white space, as an art teacher. He gave his lectures twice: once to a paying audience and again for free. He was once asked, at a paid version, what the point was in his extensive travels teaching miners to draw. Miners were never going to make money as artists after all, that would be silly. Ruskin replied that missed the point: he gave free art lessons to make happier miners, that it was always better to learn how to really look. We used to indulge ideas like that if you lectured at Oxbridge and had a beard like Noah. 

I will quote John once. As welcome my dazed, baffled, stir-crazy and Zoom-stunned students back into my classroom: “I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw.” 

That is not to say that I do not derive the joy of my work from seeing a child look at a drawing and almost disbelieve that they have made that come into the world. Those words will not make it any easier to smile when my students tell me they want to make a living as an artist, knowing that this government has thrown their prospects aside like so much unsold fish. But I will come to this last: John Ruskin believed that some things were real. 

No, one more and last “The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it” that’s the job. That’s a real thing. 

Best art teacher ever.

Requires Improvement

RI – Introduction

The central assertion of this series of pieces is that the system of education in England ‘requires improvement’. That language, co-opted from the language of Ofsted inspections and reports, is central to the argument: the choice to marketise and privatise the education system, and the establishment of means of surveillance and control typified entirely by Ofsted, is entirely the problem. The tools and apparatus which support the current neoliberal arrangements make life worse, not better, for the most disadvantaged.

This is not an argument which disparages teachers. Far from it: the argument, broadly, is that the political class has failed to create the necessary conditions in which the teaching profession’s efforts can best result in successful children and young people. This is also certainly not an argument which disparages those children and young people themselves. Instead, it argues that those who would most benefit from, and who would be most easily reached by, systemic improvement, are those that the current system ignores. It is also not a defeatist argument. Inherent in the ‘requires improvement’ phrasing is the idea that things can get better.

Nigel Lawson said “genuine educational reform is a particularly unattractive prospect for any government… It upsets all those with a vested interest … [but the benefits] will not become apparent within the lifetime of even the longest lived administration.”[1] He was, and remains, right. This truth explains the shoddy nature of some policy work in this field, with short-sighted politicians chasing electoral gains or personal political capital. That said, there have been numerous instances of politicians brave enough to do what was right, even when that was difficult, and when the incentives to do so were moral and long-term rather than tangible and immediate. In short – the Labour party need to aspire to good policy rather than settling for simply good politics.

Before improvements can be made to the system, a full understanding of why that system is as it is must be secured. My contention is that Thatcher’s 1988 reforms undid the post-war consensus, dismantled the welfare state, and set English state education off in an entirely different direction[2], pursuing:

  • A fragmented sector, with unclear and unaccountable control mechanisms
  • Market logics and quasi-privatisation, with the undue practices resultant from both
  • Competition over collaboration, divorced from the reality of the human condition
  • A system of selection, absent any public account made for such a system

The New Labour government, the coalition government, and the subsequent Conservative governments have not deviated in any particularly principled terms from the 1988 Education Reform Act. This marked the turning point where the post-war consensus was rejected, and defines the system we currently face. Whilst we should be proud of the Blair years and the work done on reducing child-poverty[3], we need to be constructively critical of that project’s failure to rigorously challenge the paradigm shift of Thatcherism.

Before improvements can be made to the system, a proper diagnosis of its present short-comings is essential. This will make up subsequent pieces. There will be crossover between these loose groupings, but the failures highlighted cover:

  • Poor outcomes internationally and internally
  • A failure to prepare children and young people for their adult lives – as workers, and as citizens
  • Insufficient social cohesion and integration
  • Poor health and well-being for children, young people, and adults

In its most condensed form, the argument is that education should create a population which is knowledgeable, skilful, and happy. The current arrangements are failing to deliver.

Before improvements can be made to the system, policy proposals need to be carefully considered with regards to moral purpose and practical implementation. Following pieces will make such proposals.

This not an argument for the return to some fictionalised and romanticised halcyon days. Rehashing political debates from the 1970s and 1980s serves no purpose. Rebecca Long-Bailey’s calls for a return of all schools to local authority control were unconstructive and backwards-facing. We need to accept the architecture of the school-system, and harness it to work more effectively.

Education is a public good, communally owned. It has been, despite this relatively non-contentious declaration, surrendered to market logics and corporate purposes. It has been atomised, individualised, and is conceptually driven by competition. It is a neoliberal project, controlled with the tools of New Public Management. The logics of markets, the approaches of business, and the interests of private capital – not one of these is an appropriate mechanism for handling public goods and services. Instead, we need to consider how we can create a system which is responsive to need and democratically managed, and which situates control in the community.

Schools, colleges and universities are a vital part of the civic ecology in England, and there is need for a properly social democratic advocacy of them better fulfilling their potential roles in a highly functional society. This series of posts aims at attempting such an advocacy.

[1] The View From Number 11: Memoirs of a Tory Radical; Nigel Lawson; Biteback Publishing; 2011

[2] Coalition Education Policy: Thatcherism’s Long Shadow; H. Stevenson; FORUM 53; 2011

[3] Labour’s Record on Poverty and Inequality; Institute for Fiscal Studies; Labour’s record on poverty and inequality – Institute For Fiscal Studies – IFS; 2013


Adult Education: post-pandemic strategy is urgently needed

Photo: Habie Schwarz

Our country faces a crisis in adult learning in a post Covid-19 economy.

Even before the pandemic, according to the OECD, 9 million adults in England had ‘low basic skills’ in literacy and numeracy.  And over the past two decades the number of adults accessing any form of post-school learning, particularly those from more deprived backgrounds, has plummeted.

The government has promised a ‘lifetime skills guarantee’ and 2.5 billion over five years, but this will only go some way to make up the existing deficit. And according to its recent White Paper, employers will be handed the greater measure of power to reshape local employment and educational landscapes, with the role of trade unions marginalised. 

A bigger, bolder vision of lifelong learning is now imperative, one that not only recognises the need to re-skill citizens for the future, but that embraces the values of learning for learning’s sake. 

Historically, adult education in the UK has had a much broader remit, for both individuals and communities. It has fostered the intellectual and artistic interests of millions, and helped communities to come together to debate difficult topics, and so promote understanding, tolerance and valuable social action. Universities once played an important part in providing education for their surrounding communities. 

Last year the Centenary Commission for Adult Education ( of which I was a member) made a number of important recommendations. These include a a national strategy led by a dedicated minister for lifelong learning; a community learning centre in every town; funding for individuals and groups to shape their own learning; new regional partnerships between local authorities, voluntary groups, universities and further education providers; restoration of the highly successful Union Learning Fund; and a requirement for universities to provide adult education for their communities.

No fewer than five major commissions and committees in recent years have argued for similar change. Investing in adult education of all sorts will pay real dividends. Now is the time to act.

Melissa Benn is a writer and campaigner.


Editor’s note

“At a pinch you might do without Parliament. You could do without the Minister: you could certainly do without Civil Servants and almost as certainly without local education authorities. Without any or all of them the world might not seem much worse. But if there were no teachers the world would be back in barbarism within two generations.”

George Tomlinson – NUT Conference 1947

Hi there, my name is Ben (@bfarren94), and I’ve recently assumed the title (democratically and totally not in a web-archive fuelled coup sort of way) of Editor of Labour Teachers. I’m a Maths teacher currently based in Sheffield.

I hope this can be a productive space for Labour Teachers, Labour supporters, Labour members and for those satellites who in their varying degrees surround our party. In the last couple of weeks, Labour teachers, supporters, politicians and stakeholders have been putting together their thoughts on where Labour is, where education is, and what comes next. I really hope you enjoy what they have to say, I very much enjoyed putting it together.

Join the @LabourTeachers conversation on our Twitter page and write for us! If you want to get involved in any way, we’re welcoming all input.



Welcome (back) to Labour Teachers. Due to busy lives and changing hands Labour Teachers has had a fallow period. Now it’s back.

The consensus is that professional bodies have become central in thinking for, supporting and organising for the Labour Party. Our view is that it would be beneficial to increase the range of ideas by having a platform just for teachers who support the Party.

This is our staff room. Labour Teachers should be a place of debate, of challenge, of ideas, and of fun. We have a lot of ideas for how the site should run and the features we should have.

But Labour Teachers will be nothing without Labour teachers. This a call for you to get involved.

Can you not believe Labour won’t just adopt X policy?

Are you thinking of leaving the profession? Why?

Gove vs Williamson?

Have you always wanted to talk about teaching and politics but not had a platform?

Post-vaccination (strains, mutations and herds permitting) education will be a key priority for both Government and Opposition. We can influence this.

Our Party is full of ideas, expertise, clarity and care. We (not exclusively) want the very best for our pupils, and although some disagree on methods and roadmaps, our goal is the same. We want the education of our pupils today, our pupils tomorrow, and the pupils of 2030 to have the best basis for the rest of their lives. Whether this is by Engelmannian Direct Instruction, Kagan structures in 4 dimensions, academy led free school state funded whatever, we all want the best for all pupils.

Let’s talk about it, let’s make each others’ ideas better, let’s bond as a professional subgroup and form a hub for positive change and effective practice. Most importantly, let’s prepare for government.