Labour unites where the Tories divided

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The Independent Online
There is a fashionable argument that this Government's schools' policy is no different from the last one's; that ministerial tirades against bad teachers continue unabated; and that the new cosy relationship with private and opted-out schools is a sop to the middle classes which will perpetuate divisions from the Conservative era.

Up to a point, the thesis holds true. This government, like the last, is determined to press ahead with national tests and exam league tables so that schools are held to account for their performance. A year ago, Stephen Byers, school standards minister, controversially named and shamed 18 failing schools, more as proof that Labour was as macho about standards as its predecessor than in the belief that public humiliation was good for children and teachers (though this week it backed away from the policy).

But the comparisons work only up to a point. Conservative attacks on government efforts to reduce infant class sizes are laughable given that no Conservative minister would admit that class size had any effect on standards. And the former education secretary Gillian Shephard is misleading when she says that the Government's plans to give schools even more control over their budgets are a fulfilment of the Conservatives' policy of encouraging schools to opt out of local authority control.

Opting out was divisive. It allowed schools which voted to do so - generally those with enterprising headteachers and plenty of middle-class parents - to leave local authority control and reap financial rewards. Their neighbours were left to make do as best they might. Opted-out schools set up fiefdoms with individual admissions policies which irritated articulate parents and thwarted the less confident. The result was a mess.

David Blunkett, by contrast, is offering all schools more independence and a level playing field for funding. He is not writing local education authorities out of the script. They will retain control of admissions, and some semblance of planning should return to the system.

Mr Blunkett isn't interested in people opting out. He wants everyone to opt in. He said so in a lecture last month at Southwark cathedral. He challenged the idea that the Government wasn't interested in the poor and dispossessed, said the affluent had to be convinced of the need to help the poor, and talked in an old-fashioned Labour way about redistribution of wealth. His aim, he said, was to improve the education and life chances of children in deprived areas like his Sheffield constituency.

No Conservative secretary of state for education would have said anything remotely similar. And only one of them - Sir Keith Joseph - shared Mr Blunkett's overriding concern with children at the bottom of the heap. Conservative education policies weren't directed at the dispossessed and deprived. They aimed to satisfy aspiring parents: opting out, a grammar school in every town, starred A grades as well as As at GCSE to prove to high-flying parents that exams weren't getting easier. The Major government was more interested in toughening up the rules allowing schools to exclude more pupils than in the sort of schemes proposed by the Government's Social Exclusion Unit. These involve guidelines with legal force to cut down on exclusions and a promise of full-time education for excluded children by the year 2002.

Even the national literacy and numeracy targets, lambasted by headteachers last week, are part of the strategy of inclusion.

For the first time in this country we are asked to believe that the vast majority of children are capable of reaching acceptable standards in English and maths by the age of 11, that there isn't an educational underclass which will never make it.

Though some Labour and Conservative policies are the same, there are big differences. Underlying the Conservative strategy was the belief that the weak could go to the wall. Mr Blunkett is determined that they won't.