Schools and Scandals

New Statesman (1996), June 28, 1996 | Go to article overview

Schools and Scandals


Labour is winning the education argument. It must not allow itself to be distracted now, either by a government white paper or its own local authorities

Labour's lead in the opinion polls on education is enormous, gratifying and growing. At the last count, Gallup put the gap between Labour and the Conservatives at 39 points. Labour's own private polls suggest a lead on the core issue of standards in education at 47 points, which compares with a figure of 12 points in 1993.

These figures are a credit to David Blunkett, who has in the last year emerged as one of Labour's most effective front-benchers, and they explain the panic that lies behind this week's education white paper from the government.

The white paper is all politics and no policy. Carefully preceded by a false overture in the Tory papers promising "a grammar school in every town", in reality it offers no such thing. It is, in part, a catching-up measure against Labour, giving local education authority schools more control over their own budgets (currently they control 85 per cent, Labour has proposed 90 per cent and now the government says 95), but it is mostly an attempt to appear to extend the frontiers of selection. As such, it runs into the awkward problem that only a tiny minority of even the small minority of schools that have opted for grant-maintained status have chosen to introduce selection on academic grounds.

Having failed to make its policies stick on the ground, because parents do not want them, the government is thus reduced to re-transmitting its message in bigger, cruder type. John Major hopes to tap a vein of middle-class aspiration and nostalgia and that voters will not spot the fact that here is yet another education document remorselessly concerned with the fortunes of a small minority. Only 7 per cent of pupils are in grant-maintained schools.

Labour's strength in education policy is that it has always recognised that high-quality education for all is vital for a healthy society and a productive economy. Its problem has been that too many schools, both at the primary and secondary level, have been blighted by excessive attachment to the dogma of mixed-ability teaching and have been resistant to proper oversight of standards and effective intervention when standards are shown to be falling short. …

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