Alan Smithers: Blair's report will say: 'could have done better'

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The Independent Online

In essence, "choice and diversity" means having a variety of schools and allowing parents to choose between them, with money following pupils, so there is continual pressure to improve to attract. In effect, a quasi-market.

But markets operate by some people getting better deals than others, who can miss out altogether. Compulsory education, however, should provide equivalent opportunities for all. The crunch comes when more parents want their child to go to a particular school than can be accommodated. Blair's agenda has no fair answer to this. Choice, therefore, becomes, at best, preference and, more often, selection by parental nous. Diversity has spawned specialist schools that are not obviously specialist, costly city academies that cream neighbourhoods, and faith schools without any thought as to the effects on society. "Choice and diversity" is riddled with so many illogicalities that it is hard to see it surviving Blair for long.

He will, I think, be credited with shining the spotlight on education, eventually finding a lot of extra money for it, and some notable achievements. His governments have successfully won acceptance for the national curriculum, key-stage tests, Ofsted and financial delegation to schools - Conservative reforms that were fiercely opposed by many, including the Labour Party, at the time they were mooted. He has taken forward the literacy strategy of his predecessors, putting how to handle words and numbers at the heart of primary education. He has reinforced the importance of nursery education, has encouraged more to continue beyond the age of 16, and grappled with the finances of higher education (where even Thatcher's courage failed her).

But, as much as Blair admires Thatcher, to be remembered as her bag-carrier is hardly what he has in mind. Why has "education, education, education" not been more distinctive? In part, it is because his energies have been diverted elsewhere. He has had to contend with a Chancellor who has urgently wanted his job and played to old Labour sympathies. He has been distracted by Iraq, but, in truth, he has seemed more comfortable on the world stage than with his party. In the second term, he was not helped by the numerous ministerial changes in education, but it was he who chose Estelle Morris who set off the musical chairs.

These distractions, however, have to be set against tremendous advantages. With a huge majority, a favourable economy and feeble opposition, he should have been able to do what he wanted. From the moment of standing as party leader, Blair was careful to say little that was specific about what he intended to do. At first, this looked like good politics, maximising the vote by not scaring anyone off, but in retrospect, one wonders whether there was much there anyway.

It is when he has gone beyond Thatcher that Blair has tended to come unstuck. Trying to manage education through centrally set targets has put more weight on school tests and examinations than they will bear.

Education has become distorted as schools have striven, perhaps with their own survival at stake, to meet them. The amazing growth of the four-GCSE weighted GNVQ in information technology, which Ofsted inspectors do not rate as worth two GCSEs, is just one example.

In the Government's desperate desire for good news it has swept test and exam results into a spin of success. Even real progress in primary schools has been caught up in the ensuing scepticism. Belatedly, Blair has realised that targets can be counter-productive, and both the Standards and Effectiveness Unit and Michael Barber are gone. But spin is endemic. Claims on teacher supply conveniently ignore that it is still below the worst levels of previous governments.

To choice and diversity, targets and spin, we can add education action zones, individual learning accounts, and the Tomlinson U-turn. Neither the National College for School Leadership, nor the Learning and Skills Council has been a conspicuous triumph. Bold statements have been made, such as "zero tolerance for bad behaviour", without the practical measures to make them happen. After Brown, it may be that history will look more kindly on Blair, though it is doubtful whether it will accord him the accolade he desires. The substance has just not been there to back the style.

The writer is Professor of Education at Buckingham University. He contributed to the education chapter of The Blair Effect 2001-5, edited by Anthony Seldon and Dennis Kavanagh, and published today by Cambridge University Press
education@independent.co.uk

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