How could Labour fail this one?

Harriet Harman's choice of a grammar school for her son reveals the muddle of her party's thinking on education policy.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT SHOULD have been a marvellous week for Labour, on a subject where the party is historically strong. The results of the first national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds were to be published, showing that more than half the children had failed to reach the expected standard. John Major's strange, muddled scheme to give parents vouchers for nursery education was to be debated in the House of Commons. University vice-chancellors, furious over funding cuts, were ready to talk openly about students, or their parents, having to pay hundreds of pounds a year in tuition fees.

Instead, the party found itself on the defensive in a mega-row over schools. For a time, the controversy over Harriet Harman's decision to send her child to a selective school threatened to tear apart the fragile unity between "old" and "new" Labour. The Tories, who had watched helplessly as Opposition and press had pursued minister after minister out of office, were offered a gift beyond their wildest dreams: a scandal that might force a shadow cabinet member to resign. John Major, whose leadership had seemed in question, looked suddenly like an election-winner. Labour's education policy, already criticised for vagueness and ambiguity, was in tatters.

It was, as many MPs admitted, easily Labour's worst week since the 1992 general election. By the end of it, Tony Blair appeared to have defused the worst of the immediate crisis. But he and his aides were forced to ask themselves: would this prove to be a turning-point in their apparently effortless cruise to a general-election victory?

IF EVER there was a predictable disaster, this was it. Ms Harman, the shadow health secretary, had expected a row, but not on this scale and not so soon. Shortly before Christmas, she informed Mr Blair that her 11-year-old son, Joe, had passed an examination to go to St Olave's, a grant-maintained (opted-out) grammar school in Bromley, Kent. But the news, she thought, was not likely to leak until well into the New Year. So no media strategy was drawn up; the plan had been to release the story on a very busy news day.

Labour reckoned without the Mail on Sunday's political correspondent, Joe Murphy. He had heard a rumour that Ms Harman was to send her child to a grant-maintained school. He did not have its name but drew up a shortlist of those within a reasonable radius of the home that she shares in south London with her partner, Jack Dromey. He set about ringing each in turn. His second call was to St Olave's and, from the embarrassed silence of the school secretary, he knew he had hit the bull's-eye.

The headmaster came on the line, talked freely about the school and even invited the paper's photographer. Then he phoned Ms Harman at her Westminster office. She contacted Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's press secretary, and David Hill, Labour's chief press officer. The Mail on Sunday could be guaranteed to produce a damaging story. Deciding it would be better to get her oar in first, Ms Harman told her office to contact the Independent and the Daily Mirror.

Ms Harman still did not believe she was sitting on top of an earthquake and, at first, she seemed to be right. The Mirror put the story on page two, the Independent ran it on page one but not as its lead story. Only the Daily Mail, which moved quickly to follow up the other papers, splashed the story on its front page.

Then it seemed almost to die. Most Sunday newspapers made little of it. Tory MPs made predictable comments about "hypocrisy" but most Labour MPs swallowed their anger and refused to comment. Perhaps if another big story had broken that day, it would have died. Perhaps, too, Labour MPs could have restrained themselves if the story had involved a different shadow cabinet member. But Ms Harman is not popular, being widely considered arrogant and aloof. "The thing is," said one frontbencher, "she epitomises the well-presented, telegenic, young, modern side of the party: the beautiful people. It focuses attention on the argument that we are being run by a metropolitan elite."

On Sunday, Clare Short, the shadow transport minister, said on television that Ms Harman would have to answer to her voters over the decision. The dam burst, with spectacular effect. Gerry Steinberg, the chairman of Labour's education committee, resigned in protest. The following day, former frontbencher Ann Clwyd said Ms Harman "is wrong, she is incorrect, and should not have done it". Peter Hain wrote to the Guardian praising comprehensive education; Roy Hattersley took to the airwaves doing the same. And this was nothing to what was being said behind the scenes. Several MPs wrote to Mr Blair demanding Ms Harman's resignation. The chief whip, Donald Dewar, was on the receiving end of concerted fury.

A purely fortuitous oversight threatened to send the whole affair out of control. Because of a misunderstanding, nobody had warned John Prescott, the deputy leader, of the impending row. Mr Prescott, who has been excluded at key moments before, was furious. He has always been suspicious of glamorous, middle-class modernisers such as Ms Harman. Further, he was himself an 11-plus failure, and deeply opposes selection. As John Major taunted Mr Blair at Commons Question Time on Tuesday, the deputy leader was unable to conceal his feelings.

However, by Wednesday, when Ms Harman faced the Parliamentary Labour Party, Mr Blair had already talked Mr Prescott round at a private meeting. The PLP meeting was, according to one shadow cabinet minister, "the most highly charged since the 1983 election". There was standing room only as Ms Harman apologised in a two-minute speech which was greeted with silence. One MP observed: "It was evident that she had few reserves of support to call upon."

Then Mr Blair rode to her defence, putting his leadership on the line. He told the assembled MPs: "I am not going to allow the Tories the pleasure of crucifying any member of my shadow cabinet. I'm not going to yield up any scalp. That's John Major's way."

He won the day, but there was little doubting the shock and alarm in Labour ranks. When, on Tuesday, David Blunkett, the shadow education secretary, made a school visit to Croydon the local MP, Malcolm Wicks, told him: "This is the local sixth-form college - and my kids attended it." "Thank God for that," replied Mr Blunkett.

MS HARMAN's career, for the time being at least, was saved. But was Labour's education policy? The division within the party over schools is not a simple one between left and right. Indeed, it was the old Labour right - notably the late Anthony Crosland - to whom comprehensive education was an article of faith. They saw the redistribution of educational opportunity, rather than the redistribution of income and property, as the route to a better and more equal society. Their heirs, such as Roy Hattersley, sniff betrayal in the hints of new Labour ambiguity about the virtues of comprehensives. Beyond them lie the ranks of teachers, who account for a large slice of Labour's membership. They suspect new Labour of betraying them by joining Tory "teacher-bashing", particularly against those who struggle in inner-city schools.

Further, Labour MPs have always been vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy in such areas as education and health. Just as the Tories, the party that rails against sexual promiscuity and family break-up, are damaged by adulterous MPs, so Labour, as the party that rails against privilege, is damaged by any suggestion that its members are grabbing special advantages for themselves or their families.

It is almost unimaginable now that any Labour leader would send his or her child outside the state sector. Mr Blair has chosen the London Oratory, a comprehensive that has opted out of local authority control, for his son; Ms Harman a selective grammar school. Both are at pains to point out that these schools are within the state sector; at least they are not buying privilege. Yet 30 years ago, Labour leaders, such as Harold Wilson and Denis Healey, could send their children to independent schools and occasion little comment. Wilson's adviser, John Vaizey, sent his son to Eton. In those days, the state sector, based on grammar and secondary modern schools, was itself riddled with inequality. Only when the comprehensive system became dominant in the 1970s did it become axiomatic that Labour MPs and prominent supporters should send their children to state schools.

Professor David Donnison, a Labour adviser in the 1960s, whose first son went to grammar school, sent the last four to comprehensives. "For a lot of people it was a matter of principle that you should at least try to send your child to a comprehensive." Maurice Kogan, another academic and Labour adviser from that generation, sent his children to his neighbourhood comprehensive, Islington Green in London, while it was still transforming itself from a struggling secondary modern. He aimed to help improve it by ensuring it had good governors and an inspiring new head. Such a step, he believes, may have been easier then than it is now. "We did agonise over it. But there was a progressive vogue for comprehensives. There were more middle-class people doing it. People were still optimistic that comprehensives might do what we hoped. Now they are more pessimistic, whether or not that is justified."

Under the Tories, the problem has become all the more difficult because, once more, the state school system has become fragmented. Ms Harman, perhaps because the leak of her grammar school decision took her by surprise, never quite articulated the strongest argument in her defence - that, because the smarter parents in metropolitan areas now have so many different ways of finding alternatives for their children, the genuine urban comprehensive, with a balanced intake of children from all social classes and all ability levels, is all but dead. There are technology colleges, opted-out schools, specialist schools concentrating on languages, sport or music. There are selective schools, non-selective schools and partially selective schools; and, if places are available, parents can bus their child as far as they like to school.

All this has led to increasingly difficult personal decisions. Was Peter Kilfoyle, Labour's youth spokesman, right to keep his children at Liverpool Blue Coat School after it opted out, despite the party's commitment to abolishing grant-maintained schools? Was Paul Boateng, MP for Brent South, wrong to send his daughter to an opted-out comprehensive in Hertfordshire where almost half the secondary schools are grant-maintained?

For some, it is almost impossible to make the right choice. Jack Straw, for example, sent his children a mile and a half from his home in Lambeth, south London, to Pimlico comprehensive in Westminster, and was criticised. But Pimlico school was specifically built to serve children who lived south of the river.

WHAT angered many Labour-supporting teachers - and went almost unchallenged last week - was the claim, implicit in Ms Harman's decision, that London schools in inner-city areas such as Southwark offer no hope at all. Bernie Grant, Labour MP for Tottenham, added fuel to the fire when he said that the aspirations of the schools in his local borough, Haringey, were too low and that he wished he had had his own children privately educated.

What are the facts? In Southwark, 22 per cent of children achieve five or more higher grades at GCSE; in Haringey, 27 per cent. The national average is 43 per cent. But these figures hide great disparities: Haringey has two comprehensives where exam results are above the national average, Southwark has one. At the other extreme, both boroughs have schools where fewer than 10 per cent get five or more higher grades.

One of the latter is White Hart Lane comprehensive, still attended by Mr Grant's son. "Our results are appalling," agrees Lionel Warne, the head. "We are not satisfied with them. But that's not to say our staff are failing the children. All the odds are stacked against us."

To some, that will sound like a feeble excuse. But consider the facts at White Hart Lane: out of 1,082 pupils, 693 come from families poor enough to qualify for subsidised school meals. More than 42 languages are spoken at the school, including Russian, Somali and Turkish, and, in all, 868 children are from ethnic minorities. Many pupils come from temporary accommodation and stay for too short a period for Mr Warne to have any hope of giving them a proper education. "We are not concentrating on them taking an exam at 16," he said. "You must not compare us with a middle-class school. We have to develop their language abilities.

"Our school has been penalised because it cannot raise financial backing for projects. For example, we want to develop the teaching of food, textiles and technology at the school. But the Government has said we need pounds 100,000 from the business world before it will provide extra funding. We have tried for 18 months to raise the money but failed. If we were in an affluent area there would be no problem. But we do not have wealthy parents with connections."

Mr Warne insists that, despite everything, the school persuades children to raise their aspirations. "If that is not so, how is it that Mr Grant's son is going on to university?" Solutions that seem obvious to outsiders, however, seem impracticable to Mr Warne. "All our classes are mixed ability," he says. "How do you stream when you can have 27 languages in one class?"

Mr Warne's explanation of his school's problems is eloquent and convincing. Given what it has to cope with, the school probably does well. But that is no help to middle-class parents who do not want to take risks with their children's chances of passing exams. With the best will in the world, they have a better chance in a school that is focused exclusively on high- level academic work, rather than in one where teachers must struggle to teach the basics of the English language.

This is the nub of Labour's schools dilemma. Giving parents choice merely allows the better-off to get their children out of schools like White Hart Lane, and so forces such schools to focus even more on the special needs of the deprived. But if it denies choice, Labour appears to prevent vast numbers of parents from getting a better deal for their children.

The Harman row thus went to the heart of the dilemma created by Labour's modernising project: how to appeal to the new middle classes and aspirant working classes while continuing to help the deprived? The question has not been resolved in education policy. Last year's key education document, Diversity and Excellence, enshrined the survival of grant-maintained schools (shorn of their financial privileges) as "foundation schools". Mr Blunkett's allies see it as "a sensible compromise on a difficult issue". Likewise, the position of grammar schools remains a compromise one; local ballots will decide whether they survive or not.

The critics, however, are not so kind. One of the few Labour supporters of selection, Stephen Pollard, formerly research director of the Fabians, and now of the Social Market Foundation, argues: "The leadership feels that it cannot go any further in modernising our education system at this stage than getting the party to accept that grant-maintained schools are here to stay - albeit under another name. Our policy is not so much fudged as inconsistent. We cannot claim to be in favour of comprehensive schools while accepting that grant-maintained schools and grammar schools should exist. By definition we don't have a comprehensive education policy."

The fault-lines between old and new Labour are clearer than ever. The agonies of Ms Harman's school choice are commonplace among London's bourgeoisie. Yet most of her party simply failed to comprehend it. As one MP said: "The lack of support for her illustrated that the modernisers really do not have much of a power-base in the party. It showed that, when Blair was elected, they pulled off a coup d'etat." One Cabinet minister said last week: "It has brought out a lot of tensions of a personal kind in the Labour Party. Those on the Labour Party benches who have so vigorously attacked Harriet Harman have in mind a real target who is the leader of the Labour Party." As the Tories know too well, the voters do not like a divided party.

If there is a compensation for Mr Blair, it is that he has shown that he can tough-out a crisis. And if Labour MPs have been shaken out of their growing complacency, the past week may prove to have been no bad thing. It has shown, above all, that the general election is far from decided. As one Conservative backbencher put it last week: "Harriet has done something we all thought impossible, something John Major never managed to do: unite the Tory party."

Additional reporting by Fran Abrams and Sophie Goodchild.

Alan Watkins, page 19 and Nick Cohen, page 21

Comments