Has Anything Changed?
that exhilarating night in May 1997 when New Labour won a landslide election victory
over the Tories, it really did seem to many people that we would soon be at the
point where everything had changed. In fact, of course, nothing
has changed at least not for the better and nowhere is this more
true than in the field of education.
In this Summer number of Forum,
we are proud to reprint a powerful Guardian cartoon by the brilliant
Steve Bell showing the hapless Education Secretary mouthing the slogan: Read
My Lips! Loads More Selection. We are told that David Blunkett has
the main education newspaper items read to him every morning; and one imagines
that this particular gem will have sent him incandescent with rage, Mr Blunkett
being extremely sensitive and thin-skinned, as I have learned to my cost.
as Roy Hattersley has often pointed out, there is a sense in which the Education
Secretary is a genuine object of pity. If he ever devised a plan to promote comprehensive
state education without independent or selective enclaves and one admits
it may be a difficult scenario to imagine it would doubtless be vetoed
by the tight group of trusted advisers who enjoy easy access to Tony Blair. In
the area of educational policy-making, Andrew Adonis, Michael Barber, Chris Woodhead
and, before his fall from grace, Peter Mandelson, have clearly wielded far more
power and influence than have David Blunkett, Estelle Morris or Baroness Blackstone.
After all, much of the educational thinking outlined in the 1997 White Paper Excellence
in Schools was foreshadowed in the 1996 book The Blair Revolution: Can
New Labour Deliver?, co-authored by Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle, and
in the 1996 book The Learning Game, authored by Michael Barber.
apart from the mess over selection policy, it seems clear to me that so many of
New Labours educational mistakes over the past two years were
deadly own-goals and could so easily have been avoided.
phasing of the 1998 pay settlement inexplicable during a teacher supply
crisis was a crass decision which lost much teacher goodwill.
was surely a grave misjudgment for the former Minister of State Stephen Byers
to name the 18 worst performing schools shortly after
taking office. And it was equally foolish of Tony Blair to announce on the BBC
television Breakfast with Frost programme before the 1997 General
Election that Chris Woodhead would enjoy his full support as Chief Inspector of
Schools in the event of a Labour victory. Such ill-conceived pronouncements conveyed
a clear message to teachers that New Labour would not attempt to change the balance
between pressure and support, as Tony Blair had promised before the Election.
At the same time, a government with a genuine belief in the professionalism of
teachers would have created a General Teaching Council with the Teacher Training
Agency under its control, rather than the other way round.
of student tuition fees currently causing difficulties in the aftermath
of the elections in Scotland and the proposal in the 1998 Green Paper Teachers
Meeting the Challenge of Change to introduce performance-related pay
for teachers (discussed in this number by Sheila Dainton of the ATL) were hardly
calculated to convince students and teachers that New Labour was anxious to govern
in their interests.
Then again, the pre-publicity for a recent set of policy
initiatives directed at inner-city education was an excellent example of how to
cause maximum confusion while, at the same time, continuing the Tory policy of
alienating teachers in inner-city comprehensive schools. A front-page story in
The Sunday Times of the 21st March announced that an elite 10 per
cent of pupils at comprehensives were to be creamed off and given
special tuition in an attempt by Tony Blair to stem the exodus of middle-class
children to private schools. At least 100,000 children would benefit initially
from the Scheme which would, predicted The Sunday Times, sound the
death knell for mixed-ability teaching in comprehensive schools. It wasnt
too clear how the new arrangements would operate, but it seemed likely that the
elite pupils in the biggest cities, including London, Birmingham and
Manchester, would be singled out for extra attention and tuition, sometimes after
school or at weekends and sometimes at nearby specialist schools.
predictably, this initiative was seen by many headteachers and union leaders as
signalling yet another vote of no confidence in inner-city schools. In the words
of John Dunford, General Secretary of the Secondary Heads Association: this
is not modernising the comprehensive system; it is undermining it. And according
to Nigel de Gruchy, General Secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union
of Women Teachers, if this hare-brained scheme is designed to reassure the
middle classes, it will not succeed. Desperate middle-class parents can usually
afford extra tuition for their children. Their real concern is social. They dont
want their own children mixing with rough youngsters.
Tory obsession with market forces and privatisation seems to have acquired a new
and unexpected prominence on the New Labour education agenda. The more obvious
examples here are the privatising possibilities implicit within the Education
Action Zones Project; the decision to allow a private sector takeover of a state
secondary school in Guildford, Surrey; and the naming of 10 consortiums that will
take the lead in privatising state education in areas where the local authority
is found to be failing to provide an adequate service for the pupils in its schools.
re-reading the opening section of this rather depressing Editorial, I have to
concede that there is one major exception to that paragraphs pessimistic
This concerns the response of New Labour to the recent nail bomb
atrocities which, at the time of writing, have been designed to bring bloodshed
and chaos to a number of marginalised communities in London: in Brixton,
Brick Lane and Soho. Generally speaking, the response of leading politicians like
Tony Blair and Jack Straw has been sincere and apposite, showing genuine concern
and sympathy for the groups of individuals principally affected. The Tories would
have mouthed platitudes about the unforgivable threat to law and order and the
need for all citizens to be vigilant; but, with a few honourable exceptions, their
concern would have been trite and synthetic.
It seems to me
arguable that it was the brutal and dehumanising culture of the 1980s which paved
the way for, and to some extent legitimised, the many atrocities of this current
decade. It was, after all, Mrs Thatcher who idolised Enoch Powell and talked of
the country being swamped by immigrants; and it was her Government
which attacked the recognition of lesbian and gay sexualities by incorporating
the notorious Clause 28 into the 1988 Local Government Act. The phrase outlawing
the promotion of homosexuality in schools had the insidious and intended
consequences of both constructing all teachers as the potential corrupters of
their pupils and encouraging young people to think of gays and lesbians as evil,
All this gives us a powerful insight into the Tory
Mind. In Lucky George, his recently-published Memoirs of an Anti-Politician,
ex-Tory MP and ex-Minister for Higher Education George Walden writes: scratch
the topsoil of the most modern-minded Conservative, and one millimetre down you
will find, more often than not, an impermeable layer of Jurassic prejudice
I would argue that with regard to the important issue of what
it means to be British, things have changed even if we still
have a long way to go if we want to create a truly decent civilised society in
which all forms of diversity racial, cultural, religious and sexual
are welcomed and celebrated.
In a well-timed speech in Birmingham
on the 2nd May, intended to mark the 300th anniversary of the founding of the
Sikh religion, the Prime Minister spoke eloquently of the need to build the
tolerant multiracial Britain the vast majority of us want to see. He argued
powerfully that an attack on any section of the community was an attack on Britain
as a whole:
When one section of our community is under attack, we defend
it in the name of all the community. When bombs attack the black and Asian community
in Britain, they attack the whole of Britain
When the gay community is
attacked and innocent people are murdered, all the good people of Britain, whatever
their race, their lifestyle, their class, unite in revulsion and determination
to bring the evil people to justice.
What is also clear is that education
itself has an important role to play in defeating the sort of vicious nationalism
that tolerates attacks on minorities and replacing it with a vision for the 21st
century based on respect for human diversity.