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Volume 42 Number 3 2000



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Brian Simon Blair on Education
Annabelle Dixon Fire Blankets or Depth Charges: choices in education for citizenship
Hillevi Lenz Taguchi ‘Doing Reggio’? No, ‘Doing Difference’ in Co-operative Learning
Laura Simon Issues in the Provision of Deaf Education
Pip Marples & Tyrell Burgess General Teaching Council: whose voice will be heard?
Trevor Kerry Learning and Testing: debates and dilemmas
Annabelle Dixon Too Much Too Young
Judith Judd Tony Blair Should be Proud to Send his Children to Hounslow Manor. So Why Does it Face Closure?
Ian Duckett Up for a New Curriculum
Jenny Thewlis An Education in Education: Penguin Education (and Penguin Education Specials)
Derek Gillard The Plowden Report
Brian Simon George Freeland




A Crisis of Identity

If we are to believe Sir Paddy Ashdown and the ‘revelations’ in his recently-published Diaries, both he and Tony Blair were secretly and bitterly disappointed by the enormous and largely unexpected size of the Labour victory in the May 1997 General Election because it marked the end of their dream of transforming the political landscape by forming a grand New Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition. Apparently, Mr Blair believed that a narrow Labour victory, or, better still, a ‘hung parliament’ would necessitate a Whitehall partnership with the Liberals which would inevitably evolve into the amalgamation of the two parties and the creation of a Christian Democrat Alliance capable of dominating British politics in the 21st Century. All of which would fit in with the commonly-held view that the Prime Minister has a marked dislike for the Party he leads – and for the ‘tribalists’ who stand in the way of the realisation of the Blair Project.

The precise nature of that Project is, of course, very difficult to pin down. We learn from a front-page article in The Guardian which appeared on 5 August this year that scholars working on The New Penguin English Dictionary had taken an unprecedented two months to arrive at a meaningful and acceptable definition of the noun Blairism. Apparently, the first 16 words of the definition posed very few difficulties: ‘Blairism, noun: the policies associated with Tony Blair, British Labour Leader and Prime Minister from 1997 …’; but almost every word and phrase suggested for the rest of the sentence proved to be problematic and controversial. Early drafts included: ‘… especially regarded as a highly modified or modernised form of traditional Socialist thinking intended to appeal to a wider electorate’; ‘ … characterised by the absence of a fundamental underlying ideology and a close attention to prevailing public opinion’; and ‘… characterised by a modified and inclusive form of traditional Socialism’. All were discarded as being likely to cause offence to at least one faction of the Party. ‘Modernised’ in the first draft was weeded out as a matter of ‘spin’ rather than fact; the whole of the second draft was voted out as being ‘rather nastier than a dictionary definition should be’; and ‘inclusive’ in the third attempt was felt to be ‘a matter of opinion’. The final version of the second half of the sentence – consisting of just nine words – had the essential virtues of being both bland and relatively unexceptional: ‘ … especially regarded as a modified form of traditional Socialism’.

Many would argue that New Labour has had to be vague – or, perhaps, all-encompassing – about its underlying philosophy in order to make a real success of what is often referred to as ‘big-tent politics’. And it is for that reason that it is so difficult to be precise about what Blairism stands for on a wide range of issues. We are led to believe that the Prime Minister’s thinking owes much to the concept of ‘the Third Way’ propounded by Anthony Giddens (discussed in earlier numbers of this journal by David Halpin and Glenn Rikowski); but that concept has itself been criticised for lacking precision and real content. Those close to the Prime Minister might well claim that it was New Labour’s ‘lightness of ideological being’ that enabled it to come to power with such a huge majority in 1997; but over three years later, a perceived lack of commitment to traditional party values can probably be blamed for widespread grass-roots disillusionment with all the trappings of the Blair Project.

In a recent illuminating and thought-provoking article in New Left Review (Second Series, No. 3, May/June 2000), Professor David Marquand has argued that Tony Blair’s marked disdain for ‘party’ – and, on a deeper level, for all the differences of ideology and interest which have sustained the concept of party in Britain and other European democracies – is almost palpable. According to Marquand:

Blair dreams of a united and homogeneous people, undifferentiated by class or locality, with which he, as leader, can communicate directly, without benefit of intermediaries. In his vision of it, at least, New Labour’s vocation is to mobilise the suburbs as well as the inner cities; rich as well as poor; old as well as young; Christians as well as unbelievers; hunters as well as animal-rights activists; believers in family values as well as opponents of Clause 28. Its warm embrace covers all men and women of goodwill, provided only that they are prepared to enlist in the relentless, never-ending crusade for modernisation which he and his colleagues have set in motion.

In the field of educational policy, this lack of ideological or party commitment leaves us with a programme that is multi-dimensional, difficult to define and essentially incoherent.

In a curious way, the problems besetting Tony Blair in the weeks before the recent Labour Party Conference in Brighton forced him to accept (perhaps for the first time) that he is, after all, the Leader of the Labour Party. In the Leader’s own keynote Speech delivered on the 26 September – and in many other orations from the Platform – there was a new emphasis on the traditional values of the Labour Party, with a concomitant and welcome reluctance to play up the virtues of the modernising New Labour Project.

Sadly, the one area where there was precious little sign of a new enlightenment concerned education policy in general and the future of secondary schooling in particular.

The main assumption of the Prime Minister’s ill-conceived comments on education appeared to be that there were far too many shortcomings in the nation’s comprehensive schools. Education policy to be outlined in the next Labour Manifesto would be directed at transforming the secondary system in order to create ‘first-class secondary schools’ to match ‘the already excellent primary schools’.

These comments had, in fact, been foreshadowed by an extraordinary attack on ‘one size fits all’ comprehensives in a speech delivered by Mr Blair to a group of modernising New Labour activists known as ‘Progress’ on the 8 September. This Speech is subjected to a close analysis by FORUM’s  co-founder Brian Simon in a passionate critique which constitutes the first article in this number. And it is small wonder that Brian should have approached his task with ‘a feeling of disgust’; for the Prime Minister’s main premise appears to be that the Left is generally ‘hostile to high achievement’ and that too many comprehensives have been ‘holding back their gifted pupils’. From now on ‘comprehensives should be as dedicated as any private school or old grammar school to high achievement for the most able’.

The real problem New Labour has signally failed to address centres on the increasingly hierarchical nature of the secondary school system and the growing gap between ‘successful’ and ‘struggling’ state schools. All of Mr Blunkett’s many gimmicks and initiatives designed to create more choice and diversity within the system have served merely to exacerbate the problem.

In a recent article in The Guardian entitled ‘Despair in the Classroom’ (2 November), timed to coincide with the publication, in book form, of his brilliant series of Guardian articles on the state of our education system, Nick Davies summarises the findings of his extensive research in a few damning sentences:

You cannot make sense of why some schools fail and some schools succeed without taking account of the corrosive impact of child poverty, which has soared in this country in the past 20 years. Combine that with the effects of the Conservative education reforms of the late 1980s, and you have a design for educational failure . . . You can look at any area of our schooling system . . . and you cannot explain what is happening unless you take primary account of child poverty and Kenneth Baker’s educational reforms. There are other factors in there as well; but those two are essential. The reality is that unless Mr Blunkett acknowledges this and until he finds the political courage to scrap almost all of the market-driven reforms of the late 1980s, none of the dinky little schemes which he has launched will save our schools from crisis.


Just as this number of FORUM goes to press, there is, of course, one cause for genuine celebration: the departure of Chris Woodhead as Chief Inspector of Schools in England. As an editorial in The Observer points out (5 November), the right question to ask about this wonderful news is not why Chris Woodhead has now gone, but why it has taken so long to dispose of him.

Clyde Chitty


PO Box 204, Didcot, Oxford OX11 9ZQ, United Kingdom