Christopher Price: Blair's complicated ideas should get the KISS-off

Click to follow

The best management advice I ever received consisted of four capital letters - KISS ("keep it simple, stupid"). It is the Government's failure to follow this advice that has got its policy on schooling into such a mess. Ministers have made the system far too complicated - too many school brands, too many fancy ideas, and far too much legislation.

Home-made diversity is a healthy development. Schools' strengths lie in their best teachers, their best traditions and best administrators. If they play to these strengths, they are usually excellent. But when rules and quotas are prescribed and over-inspected from above, the school works for a bit but then fades. Complications invented and owned by the school can be understood by the school. Those prescribed from above are seldom complied with.

Fancy ideas have an abysmal track record. The 11-plus was a fancy idea, based on IQs, flaky 19th-century psychological nostrums, fake research by Cyril Burt and sentimental support from members of the ruling class. They retained memories of Plato dividing society into neat categories of grammar-school philosopher kings, technical-school guardians and modern schools for everyone else whose task it was to row the boats and get killed in the wars.

Academies were the offspring of one of Blair's early fancy ideas - the Third Way - which would merge the public and private sectors in a brave new world where dodgy businessmen held hands with high-minded headmistresses. So, helped by Andrew Adonis, the Prime Minister tried to raise the self-esteem of the less confident pupils by giving inner-city schools posh titles. But the idea got out of hand because of its cash nexus. Esteem-starved millionaires had to be targeted to put in the money in exchange for which some got peerages, followed by police enquiring about infractions of the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925.

It is the policeman at the door that has now reminded the nation of the danger in dragging private-sector values into public institutions. The seeds of the market idea in education were sown by James Callaghan's Ruskin speech 30 years ago, which also helped to trigger the myth that the 1960s were responsible for the collapse of educational standards. By 1997, market disciplines had become the favourite solution to restore them. The diagnosis and the solution were always pretty suspect; but the idea of parents as consumers was seductive to politicians of both parties. Think-tank gurus had an attractive salesman's pitch. Parents could be wooed in the education and political markets simultaneously. But it complicated the educational landscape. Markets need a range of quality brands - Flora and Benecol - as well as cheap margarine. Thatcher's brands were city technology colleges, grant-maintained schools and assisted places at independent schools; Blair kept the basic idea, losing assisted places and adding academies.

After 20 years of this sort of choice there is no evidence that a majority of parents like the idea. They know the market is phoney and the choice a mirage. Nor does it work in the longer term. The original city technology colleges got the sort of boost which tends to follow smart new premises and extra funding.

But that shine wears off eventually. At the end of the day, improved schooling is a function of dedicated people - teachers, heads, caretakers, and classroom assistants, not bricks, mortar and millionaires' spare cash.

Meanwhile 50 of our fee-charging "public" schools have been caught by a piece of market-led legislation - the Competition Act - and fined £3.5m for failing to compete by forming a fee cartel. The Act is effectively a piece of European law. It regards all organisations as public flocks of sheep or private herds of goats. Blair's Third Way, which tries to mix up the public and private, does not get a look in.

So, our so-called public schools are now officially a herd of goats, peddling private services. The schools involved hardly behaved like the gentlemen they are supposed to produce for the nation. They expelled the two whistle-blowers who exposed the crime and sacked two hapless school chaplains who put their confessional relationship with their charges above their duty to their employers. They then hired Lord Lyell, an expensive former Tory attorney general, to limit the damage with the Office of Fair Trading.

So, when Brown takes over, he should keep things simple and stop legislating on education. The 1870 Act paved the way for compulsory school attendance; the 1902 Act handed over education to local democratically elected communities; the 1944 Act made fee paying illegal in state schools. Those three principles are enough to be going on with.

The writer is a former Labour MP