Does Tony Know What David's Doing?

By Phillips, Melanie | New Statesman (1996), October 24, 1997 | Go to article overview

Does Tony Know What David's Doing?


Phillips, Melanie, New Statesman (1996)


Tony Blair does not have control over his own education policy. This might seem a strange thing to say about a prime minister whose credibility depends on his government meeting a set of breathtaking targets for school improvement. It might also seem odd to imply that a prime minister who wills the ends might not control the means. In fact, a prime minister can be remarkably powerless, as Margaret Thatcher discovered when she, too, tried to drag Britain's education system out of the mire.

The fundamental problem for Blair is that a huge ideological gulf separates him from (with the possible exception of Stephen Byers) the ministers, advisers and civil servants at the Department for Education and Employment. Blair himself is clearly a meritocrat. He has little time for the doctrine of egalitarianism. He stands not for equality of outcome but equality of opportunity, which is a quite different matter. To listen to Roy Hattersley's lamentations on the subject, one would think this government had accordingly thrown out egalitarianism with all the other old Labour baggage. After all, didn't David Blunkett say in a speech that the aspiration towards equality of outcomes was now defunct?

Yet the policy over which Blunkett presides is promoting that shibboleth. Its galvanising principle is that everyone has the "right" to achieve equally and to be dealt with in the same way as everyone else. Despite lip-service to the contrary, it is hostile to diversity and venomous towards excellence. Indeed, its architects seem not to understand what excellence is. Their managerialist approach appears to assume that by kicking enough teachers, Britain will arrive painlessly at the nirvana of "excellence for all".

The ferocious rhetoric of higher standards conceals a philosophical hole at the heart of government thinking about the content and purposes of education itself. Three examples stand out: the acceptance of the fundamental principles behind Sir Ron Dearing's proposals for higher education, the assault on Oxbridge and the threat to grant-maintained schools. On all three, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Blair simply hasn't grasped that his own policies are setting out to do the opposite of what he wants.

From the start, ambiguity has shrouded Labour's policy for grant-maintained schools: they would both be brought back under local authority control and at the same time enjoy no less independence than now. GM schools are hated by the Education Department and by many local authorities for the very reasons they are so attractive. It is hard for third-rate bureaucrats to control them and foist upon them the failing ideologies that have crippled the school system. Their independence leads them to adopt policies whose popularity with parents shows up the deficiencies in other schools and destroys the usual alibis for poor practice.

It is to one such school, the Catholic London Oratory, that Blair sends his two sons. Yet had his education policy been in place when his boys had applied, they couldn't have been accepted. That is because GM schools will be covered by regulations set out in Circular 6/93, annex C. This stipulates that where local authority schools are over-subscribed, they must give preference to children from the immediate neighbourhood. The Oratory would thus have to give preference to Catholic boys from Hammersmith and Fulham. It currently selects on the basis of parental commitment demonstrated at interview; but since the circular does not allow this, it could not have investigated the commitment of the Blairs or any other parents. Its ethos will thus be destroyed.

Moreover, giving local authorities once again the power to interfere with the running of GM schools will strangle their independence and initiative in the deadly embrace of meddlesome officials. GM schools will be forced to become neighbourhood comprehensives. It is inconceivable that Blair wants this to happen. It is all too likely that he didn't realise this was what would happen, because no one told him. …

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