Tony Blair was as good as his word. He promised that he would give "education, education, education" his utmost priority, and he did. Never before in British history has a prime minister given the subject such a high proportion of his or her own time. Prime ministers traditionally talked big on the subject, but delegated it to second-rate ministers or, with first-rank ones, moved them on too quickly. The result has been that post-war education policy chopped and changed with little consistency, or empirical basis for the decisions made.
Blair's record in education has been hotly contested. One of its most forceful detractors is Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham University. He sees little evidence of sustained improvement, despite the education budget rising from £27bn a year in 1996 to the current £50bn. Critics say the money has largely been wasted in bureaucracy and pay rises rather than directly benefiting children in the classroom. They dismiss the improvement at A-levels and GCSEs as mere "grade inflation", a case supported by research from Durham University's curriculum, evaluation and management centre.
The same body has found no sustained evidence of a rise in literacy among primary school children, despite the huge effort put into improving literacy and numeracy in primary schools.
Labour has partly itself to blame for its poor press, as it made exaggerated claims about what it could achieve. But criticism does not throw any light on the true story in education, which has seen some real achievements since 1997. Much of the extra money went into improving the physical fabric of schools and resources to children, including computers. The increase in teachers' pay was long overdue. The profession is more attractive than it was in 1997. Schools are better places to work in, discipline is improved and morale is higher.
The Government did not achieve its objective of reducing the 7 per cent of children nationally who attend independent schools (17 per cent in London), but the best state schools now challenge the independents in the league tables.
Blair's most important contribution to education was to give schools greater authority. Schools flourish where they have freedom to make their own choices. Programmes in leadership have improved the quality and professionalism of head teachers. Conservative governments talked for years of rolling back the state and tinkered at the margin, as with "grant maintained schools", but it was a Labour government that did much more to free up schools and head teachers.
In secondary schools, Blair's most significant development has been the extension of the programme of specialist schools. Even more significant has been his introduction of academies, which were meant to be full independent state schools but which have been reined back by the forces of "conservatism" within the Labour Party. Indeed, but for the reactionaries within Labour, Blair would have gone much further in making all state schools independent. The losers are teachers, parents and above all children.
Gordon Brown's views on education were a mystery for many years. In fact, he didn't have views on education, other than that state education was best. His mind was elsewhere. Only leading up to the handover did he begin seriously to focus on it, as did his education secretary-designate, Ed Balls. For a time, it was the blind leading the blind. But a clearer education policy is now emerging. There will be no abandonment of academies, nor another Blair innovation, semi-autonomous "trust" schools. Specialist schools will continue and local authorities will not regain their former position. Grammar schools, strangely, will continue untouched as the largely middle-class bastions they are. Independent schools look as if they will escape without having VAT imposed on their fees, or forced loss of charitable status.
Universities may come under greater pressure to admit children from state schools; the continuing dominance of independent school candidates at top universities has been a great embarrassment of the Labour years. The system of variable top-up fees will be continued. Universities, like schools, look set to become more autonomous.
The great love of Brown and Balls is economics, so it is not surprising that we hear of "economic literacy" classes being introduced into schools (not a bad thing). It is clear that they want universities to become more utilitarian, including courses jointly funded with employers, to teach the skills needed for work. If Blair's mantra was "education, education, education", Brown's looks to be "efficiency, efficiency, efficiency".
The writer is master of Wellington College and editor of Blair's Britain: 1997-2007, published today by Cambridge University Press (£15.99)Reuse content