Alan Smithers: Blairism is Thatcherism with a few knobs on

Adonis's brief looks like a determined attempt to embed choice and diversity in secondary schools
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What lies behind Andrew Adonis's unexpected elevation from policy wonk to the House of Lords and a ministerial post? It doesn't look as though he has great political ambitions, otherwise a seat in the Commons would have been found for him, as it was for the Milibands, Ed Balls and Pat McFadden. His relocation may have rather more to do with Tony Blair's concern for his own place in educational history.

What lies behind Andrew Adonis's unexpected elevation from policy wonk to the House of Lords and a ministerial post? It doesn't look as though he has great political ambitions, otherwise a seat in the Commons would have been found for him, as it was for the Milibands, Ed Balls and Pat McFadden. His relocation may have rather more to do with Tony Blair's concern for his own place in educational history.

As great achievements usually come early in premierships when political capital is highest, Blair's die is already cast. His time in office will almost certainly be remembered for firmly re-establishing that the major task of primary education is to teach all children to handle words and numbers properly. Okay, so it was a Conservative policy, but through the literacy and numeracy strategies, the first Blair government made it happen.

History will also, I think, recognise Blair's courage in taking on a large part of his own party to get the principle of variable university tuition fees on the statute book. It is a pity so many compromises had to be made, with the result that university finances still aren't sorted, but the means is there for any government that wants to activate it. Tony Blair succeeded where even Margaret Thatcher backed away.

Blair will be remembered too for showing good sense in rejecting the conclusions of the Tomlinson inquiry. If education means anything at all, young people will become increasingly aware of what they are good at, what they like and what they want to do with their lives. This requires an array of courses and qualifications taking them in different directions, rather than just a single all-embracing diploma. But why, if he could see this, did he give Tomlinson his head in the first place? One suspects that there may have been some manoeuvring in the Department for Education and Skills.

This may be the reason Blair feels the need to have the trusted architect of many of his education policies in the department. Judging by Adonis's brief, it also looks like a determined attempt to so embed "choice and diversity" in secondary education that it will be left undisturbed. But it's difficult to see how it can survive in its present form.

City academies do not stack up economically, and specialist schools are a logical absurdity. Supposing your son or daughter discovers that they have a love of science, but the only available school is a language school. Will this make a difference? If so, your child could be taken down the wrong path. But if not, what is the justification for calling one a science school and the other a language school? It also seems barmy to have a specialist school in, say, music without being able to check whether most of the pupils have any talent for it. The varied and confusing admissions arrangements have made getting a child into a preferred but popular school a nightmare for many parents.

Egged on by Sir Cyril Taylor and Sir Cyril's school-friend Professor David Jesson, Blair's governments have become persuaded that specialist schools can raise pupil performance appreciably. But, since GCSE results overall have been falling short of targets, it is likely that some of the seeming success is down to pupil redistribution. There has to be considerable doubt, therefore, whether the apparent improvements in some schools will scale up to the benefit of all children.

Mrs Thatcher, from whom again both city academies and specialist schools derive, saw them as having only limited application, not shaping the system. Some future government will have to sort out the mess, perhaps by confining specialisation to upper secondary education, with children moving around at age 14.

If "choice and diversity" is a chimera, what then is educational Blairism? A cartoon in The Independent on 5 December 2002 summed it up brilliantly. It depicted Tony Blair as the captain of a team in University Challenge, supported by two education ministers. (Gordon Brown had rapidly vacated his chair.) The punch line - recalling a notorious occasion from the early days of the quiz - was: "We intend to answer every question... 'Margaret Thatcher!'" Tony Blair's legacy to education, as mediated by Adonis, seems destined to be Thatcherism with knobs on.

The writer is the director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham

education@independent.co.uk

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