Education, Education, Education

One of the many things I hold against Tony Blair and his New Labour government was bringing in tuition fees and replacing maintenance grants by loans in 1998, ending 36 years in which higher education in the UK had been essentially free.

I was fortunate not only to have benefitted from free higher education personally, but also for my two sons, who just about squeezed in at the end, the younger being in the final cohort who got maintenance grants rather than loans.

The grants of course were always means-tested, which greatly benefitted students from less well-heeled families. I got a full grant, and emerged from university debt free – even if I only had £5 17s 4d remaining in my bank account. And later I was happy to pay the relatively small parental contribution to their grants for which, as a teacher whose partner mainly engaged in unpaid charity work, I was assessed.

Of course it wasn’t the only mistake New Labour made in education – the whole crazy idea of Academy Schools was another – and there were some positive acheivements in raising test results, if perhaps made at the expense of teachers and narrowing the education that schools could deliver. I was pleased to be able to edge my way out of state-run education both by working inside it on a ground-breaking industry-sponsored computer-based learning scheme (when Ofsted inspectors came to college one would always ask me politely if he might come and take a look, but they couldn’t ‘inspect’ it) and also moving into full-time photography, though I’m still a ‘retired member’ of the NUT as well as a current member of the NUJ.

And of course outside of education… I’d better not start on Iraq and the rest of the disasters – though of course a few Labour MPs did vote against them, notably Mr Corbyn and Mr McDonnell…

It wasn’t just that the introduction of fees and removal of grants was clearly a backward step, one that disadvantaged students from less well off families, but that once done it gave a carte blanche to later governments to increase fees and take similar measures. And this January, a small parliamentary committee – the Third Delegated Legislation Committee – with votes by a handful of MPs brought in the final scrapping of maintenance grants for the poorest students that had been announced by Geoarge Osborne in his July 2015 budget – but never properly debated in Parliament. It’s the kind of back-door way that the current government has increasingly used to bring in legislation without proper debate. The committee voted on party lines, with 10 Conservate MPs outvoting the 8 from Labour and the SNP.

The protest outside parliament took place as MPs inside were debating an opposition day motion condemning the axing of the grants, which was lost by a fairly narrow vote.

The students, at the NCAFC ‘Grants Not Debt’ Rally, some wearing red or red cloth squares to show their opposition to student fees and maintenance cuts, met opposite Parliament. Called at short notice and on a Tuesday afternoon numbers weren’t huge, but some of the posters and placards showed their anger clearly. There was also a rather difficult to photograph group of four carrying  posters that gave – when they stood in the right order – the David Bowie lyrics from ‘Changes’: ‘And these children that you spat on as they try to change their worlds, Are immune to your consultations, They’re quite away of what they’re going through’

One of Labour’s new rising stars, Clive Lewis, Labour MP for Norwich South and Shadow Minister in Department of Energy got a great welcome when he came out to speak at the protest, and other speakers included NUS Vice President (Welfare) Shelly Asquith.

Shelly Asquith  was among those who led the protest onto Westminster Bridge and blocked it with a number of banners, and showed a remarkable ability to ignore a police officer who tried to talk to her.

Police surrounded the protesters and the protest continued, with the traffic stopped for some time – and I left as the numbers seemed to be drifiting away

NCAFC ‘Grants Not Debt’ Blocks Bridge
NCAFC ‘Grants Not Debt’ Rally


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