Blunkett's long road to the Class of '97

It is 'human capital' that the nation will increasingly find itself investing in
Click to follow
The Secretary of State for Education and Employment apologises that his office seems like "St Pancras station". And there is a buzz about it which demonstrates that Tony Blair has kept his promise to put David Blunkett's department at the heart of government. It is not just the frequency with which private secretaries (all of whom call him "David") pop in with urgent messages. There is one from the Chancellor of the Exchequer which does not, as Blunkett admits ruefully, yield the sudden rush of funding which he dreams about at night. Nor the fact that he has secured one of the highest-calibre ministerial teams in Whitehall. It is also the hectic pace since he got there two weeks ago.

Two weeks in which, in the one oblique reference he makes to his blindness (his daily red boxes now bulge with a new phenomenon for Whitehall, top secret audio tapes) he says he has now got to know the geography of the office.

Yesterday was Blunkett's day for showing, with a flourish, that he will have zero tolerance for declining school standards. The "naming and shaming" of 15 failing schools has disconcerted the teaching unions. But it has allowed him to draw, in the most dramatic way possible, a line between a government which had believed that "the free market would improve standards through schools knocking each other out" and one determined if necessary to close and re-open those failing the nation's children.

Education, he said, would not be a "secret garden, a little world of its own". And as with failing schools, so with sacking rotten teachers. That will, he says, require the new government to strike a balance between its duties as a fair employer and "a realisation that children only get one chance". "Just as you would with a high speed train driver who put your life at risk, so with a teacher who put your children's future at risk you'd want to intervene. And we're going to do that."

Yesterday Blunkett showed that he can be tough. But don't good teachers now need a boost - if only to make it an attractive job once again? "Success breeds success," he says. "The more people can feel that the profession is succeeding, the more people will want to enter. I know as an ex-teacher that my proudest moment was when I had done something well myself and when the college I taught in was clearly getting esteem for its commitment to a deeply working class area."

The standards watchdog, Ofsted, which has created a formidable reputation under Chris Woodhead as the scourge of bad schools, will have a key role. "They know what is working as well as what is failing. And while they can help us to take action in relation to failure and will, they can also assist us in terms of understanding and being able to disseminate what is working excellently." The new General Teaching Council will help to raise professional status and standards; so will the new qualifications both for heads and for experienced teachers who want to stay in the classroom.

So also will new initiatives like the current Adult Learning Week, one effect of which should be to help parents both to help themselves and to engage with their children's education. Blunkett says: "You see this with ethnic minority groups where the Chinese, the Indian and now Pakistani and Bangladeshi families are increasingly committing themselves to education. We don't have that always in the deprived white working class communities, including the one I represent as an MP."

He knows better than most how much his department will in time need and he is not remotely starry-eyed about the pounds 100m that the scrapped assisted places scheme will generate by 2000. But he is confident of fulfilling the one firm manifesto pledge - reducing primary class sizes to 30. He is not prepared to commit himself to a date earlier that the end of the parliament but adds: "I was one of those who said during the election that if we can achieve more than we've promised we'll restore faith in politics and democracy."

Last week Blunkett saw Sir Ron Dearing, who is in charge of rethinking the approach to higher education funding, and told him he wanted the report completed by the end of July There will be radical change. Nor has the Government "ruled out entirely" ending the automatic state payments of fees as well as grants.

Gordon Brown's golden rule says that borrowing should be used only to fund investment, not resources. Thirty years ago that would have meant old- fashioned capital projects. Today, in "the learning society" it is "human capital" that a nation will increasingly find itself investing in. "We're now talking about a global economy, a global perspective." So education is as much a national investment as an individual one. Dearing, Blunkett implies, will be challenging individuals to invest through loans in their own education rather as 19th century capitalists took risks to make money.

But as someone who not only has one child in university and one doing A-levels but who himself lived on a grant 28 years ago, Blunkett is firm on not deterring poorer students. "We must make sure that whatever we do, we are mindful of the disincentive effect if we force those from deprived backgrounds to work their passage, while those from affluent backgrounds are reliant on their parents. It's a balance that has to be struck."

What is clear is that he does not want to be distracted by structural issues at the expense of advancing standards. Ballots to change the selective admissions policy of the 160 grammar schools will face a high hurdle before they can even start. Blunkett is interested in continuing talks with former direct grant schools, now in the private sector, such as Manchester Grammar School, for example on how they might help to prepare inner-city state- educated sixth-formers for higher education, including Oxbridge.

"I'm saying this to the private sector generally: here is an opportunity to commit yourselves genuinely to a goal which is broader and more effective than providing excellence to the handful of children that have access to your schools."

He is prepared to look further at the Tory MP George Walden's "intellectually stimulating" ideas about luring the former direct grant schools back into the state sector to ease what the Labour manifesto called the "apartheid" between the private and state sector. But he warns that it will not work if it simply means "that we paid the fees instead of the parents for the same set of children".

Blunkett's journey to the cutting edge of Blairism has been a long one. But already he is impressive in a job that looks tailor-made for him. He rejects the idea that he was ever a "dissident left-winger", pointing out that he was "consensual" figure on the Labour National Executive in the Kinnock years, breaking for example, the deadlock on Militant. But he agrees: "Not only has the Labour Party and the nation changed but David Blunkett's changed with them and I think for the better.

"I think that as we addressed the real world of the late Nineties and came out of the cocoon of the late Eighties, the nation warmed to us. I reflect that change like everyone else."

It was never, he reflects now, nationalisation or revolutionary change that was going to give the young of Britain their chance. It was the individual skills and educational attainments they needed to help themselves. "If I can change the life chances of the kids in my constituency and across the country I'll have achieved far more than any of the aspirations that I had 30 years ago when I came into the Labour Party."