Can Blair answer the Tory jibe?

Talk of higher standards is empty while Labour is gripped by anti- selection ideology
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The Independent Online
Later today Tony Blair will attempt to rescue his party from the quagmire into which Labour has fallen over the past few days by arguing that "the real issue is not selection in 160 schools, it is standards for 7 million children in 250,000 schools". It is perhaps ironic that he will say this in Southwark Cathedral, for it is the deplorable standard of Southwark schools that precipitated Labour's recent education crisis.

Blair will propose a "fast track" for bright children by suggesting that "accelerated learning" (where younger children are taught with older children if they are bright enough - a commonplace in the private sector) should be introduced into the state system. He will then promise that a Labour government would bring the best teachers into failing inner city "sink" schools.

The question is: are these just warm words, or have the events of the past week alerted Labour to the need to tighten up its education policy in the face of Conservative attacks and the inconsistencies in Labour's existing policy'?

A week on, it is now clear that there are certain shared beliefs across the spectrum. Everyone claims to want to give all children a decent education. Everyone claims to want to increase standards. Everyone claims to have the solution to the problem of "sink" schools. Everyone claims to be against "social selection". Within the Labour Party, everyone claims to be in favour of comprehensive schools.

But how do we get from here to there? How do we ensure that everyone does indeed attend a school where - whatever its locality or its particular specialisation or style - high standards prevail.

When it comes to dealing with these issues, new Labour is faced with an almost insurmountable hurdle. The party is comprised overwhelmingly of ordinary members who believe that education is primarily about social engineering (in Tony Crosland's words, that education should be seen "as a serious alternative to nationalisation in promoting a more just and efficient society"), or still worse, of members of the very educational establishment that has failed the country and its schools in recent decades.

So even for new Labour, which was able to overturn the old Clause IV and which has rebuilt the party's philosophy into one in tune with the modern world, there is still one no-go area: education.

Although all the evidence shows that a comprehensive system simply does not educate children of all abilities as effectively as a system of selective, specialist schools, the party is unable to turn the corner.

Instead, new Labour has to come up with a series of "initiatives" which, like motherhood and apple pie, are good in themselves (who could be against high standards, for goodness sake?) but which do not address the fundamental problem: the system itself is incapable of delivering what we require. As the new report by Chris Woodhead, Chief Inspector of Schools, will show later this week, more than a quarter of the secondary schools classified as "outstandingly successful" are grammar schools - even though they account for only 0.7 per cent of schools in England and Wales.

The hope is that our schools are so bad - the latest report from the World Business Forum ranks British secondary educational machinery as 35th out of 48 - that Labour will be able to cover up the holes in its policy by lambasting the Government that has presided over this, while delivering the soundbites that play well in the present, but which say nothing about the mechanics by which Labour will deliver. "New Labour will wage war on low standards and failure, and is the party of educational achievement for all. Tough on failure, tough on the causes of failure" is the mantra. Yes - but how?

The only workable way forward is a system of properly thought through selection. At the moment we have an insidious form of selection - which catchment area or private school your parents can afford. Parents with the opportunity to exercise this choice do so because they know their children will better prosper for it. Surely the purpose of a party that believes in opportunity for all should argue that it is not just a tiny elite which should be able to send their children to the type of school they wish but all parents?

The argument has never been about whether selection worked for the selected. That is a given. The argument has, rather, been about the spectre of the secondary moderns. But the success of grammar schools did not cause the failure of secondary moderns. They failed because British culture at the time only valued academic education, so all energies were concentrated on the academic 20 per cent - and the rest could go hang.

That view has changed. We now recognise that children have different skills, all of which need nurturing. And the best way of nurturing a skill is in a focused, specialised, school. The largest ever survey of effective schooling, the 60,000-pupil report conducted for the Brookings' Institute in Washington, shows that pupils in all academic ranges, and with all kinds of skills, outperform their peers if they are taught in such schools.

The only argument ever made against those who advocate selective schooling is that "we don't want to return to a system where 80 per cent of pupils are regarded as failures". But that is a non sequitur. No one is suggesting a return to the old system. What the advocates of selection say is that a system which is good enough for all the countries the British left worships - Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Germany, France, Austria - is surely good enough for Britain. Or do we as a nation not have the wit to assemble a system of specialist schools that offer a multiplicity of provision?

But as of now, the fact that the evidence, and common sense, points so clearly in one direction is almost irrelevant. For so great is the grip of the ideologues that the prospects for change are, at best, medium term. The hard fact is that new Labour will only be creating a rod for its own back if it thinks it can simply wish up standards. New Labour will have to come to terms with the idea that selection - or specialisation, if the euphemism suits better - is the only system capable of ridding our country of "sink" schools. It will have to confront and jettison the culture of excuses that characterises British state education today. Only then will the party be able to make good its promises.

The writer is research director of the Fabian Society but will shortly become head of research at the Social Market Foundation. His paper, 'Schools, Selection and the Left', is available, price pounds 8, from the SMF, 20 Queen Anne's Gate, London, SW1.