Leading article: At last, education is not a political battleground

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The Independent Culture
TODAY'S PUBLICATION of examination league tables is no longer the cue for party political arguments. This is a welcome sign of a new consensus on education policy: as the public debate shifts to the mechanics of teaching and the details of raising schools' performance, so the ideology that so marred the Seventies and Eighties has been fading into the background.

Establishing homework clubs, wiring schools to the Internet, fixing buildings, lowering speed limits for traffic around schools: these seem to be the new minutiae on which schools will be judged. It is as if the great set- piece confrontations over "child-centred learning", grammar schools, selection and coursework have exhausted all the passion of politicians and professionals alike.

The Conservatives do not seem to be interested in opposing the Government's education policies. Proposals for paying teachers by results, in order to attract outstanding graduates to the teaching profession, were circulating in Conservative circles just before the election.

The Prime Minister is skilled at appropriating the political middle ground. New Labour promotes with zeal the same league tables the Tories initiated; the determination to tackle failing schools would have been the same whichever party was in power. Mr Blair has seized the "radical centre" he so covets; the Government's decision to defer to local parents' wishes on selection at 11-plus is a masterly example of this.

The Government knows that the teaching unions are no longer the unassailable vested interest they once were; for one thing, New Labour has skilfully detached the more radical National Union of Teachers from the other unions. It was the NUT alone which yesterday protested at the plans for performance- related pay. David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, can afford to ignore it; which union has ever come out on strike to resist a hefty pay rise for a good many of its members?

Given the Government's plans to spend more on schools, and Mr Blunkett's obvious emotional commitment to make sure that all children have access to the best education, the left has been silenced. But the right, so passionate for so long about the threat to "standards", also seems to have melted away. No longer does any serious politician envisage a "grammar school in every town", as John Major did; no longer are teachers met with a stream of invective from fashionable academe.

This new consensus opens up possibilities. The devaluation of teaching has become a critical problem, one which dogmas of right and left could not solve. The right would make teachers guardians of an unattainable past, while the left would expose them to classes without the necessary ability to demand discipline from their pupils. Education policy must now rebuild the public's confidence in teachers, and their confidence in themselves.

The gains of peace in our classrooms are clear: rising standards of literacy and numeracy for our children. The gains can already be seen in today's league tables, and the increase in pupils gaining top grades in their GCSEs and A-levels. Those gains are real and measurable - and the detail on specific schools, regions and types of schooling would never have been available without agreement that collating the information was desirable. The tables will be even more detailed and useful in future, when the results achieved by each school will be related to the ability of the children when they entered that school.

Britain's failure to educate itself as well as its competitors has been a cause of social decay and economic decline. If we can now ignore the extremists who would divert us into futile arguments about selection and teaching methods, so much the better. The Government has fostered that new consensus: it should be congratulated.

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