Again, we are forced to ask: "What did they think they were doing?" Gordon Brown gave one of his better speeches a few days ago on the subject of education. In it, he said at least two important things. He said: "World-class education depends on a systematic intolerance of failure and a preparedness of public authorities to intervene and to innovate to eradicate failure." And he said: "The best education systems recruit the best people into teaching."
Two days later, though, it was all undone in the Yeovil home of David Laws, the Liberal Democrat MP. He was reading his local newspaper, the Western Gazette. That's funny, he thought, I don't remember the Prime Minister praising Westfield Community School in Yeovil. As education spokesman, Laws had read Brown's speech with the diligence of a good student. When he got back to his Commons office on Monday it did not take long to discover that the school in his constituency was not the only one not to be mentioned in the speech. By the time Newsnight did the story on Tuesday, it had found nine examples of local newspapers that had been led by No 10 to believe that a school in their area would be praised in the speech – a speech in which no school was mentioned by name at all.
What did Downing Street officials think they were doing? This supposedly clever wheeze was bound to come apart in the way that it did. One of Tony Blair's entourage told me recently: "GB's people don't realise that you can't get away with the same things in No 10. They just carried on in the same way as they had when they were in internal opposition."
Obviously it was not Brown who suggested that his speech be spun so counter-productively but, as David Laws told me, "it says something about the culture of the people around him".
The result is that, instead of the afterglow of chin-stroking about the good ideas in Brown's speech, we have been distracted by the spectacle of a man hoist by his own petard.
Still, the Queen's Speech last week was a chance to get the Government's message back on track. Education was a big theme, and Brown could have driven home some of the important ideas he set out the week before. Yet he got that wrong too, and he cannot blame inexperienced press officers this time. He and Ed Balls, his Schools Secretary, made the wrong strategic choice. This is worse than a spin foul-up because Brown's great strength was always that, whatever the presentational awkwardness, he would get the big decisions right. He was always good at laying down the "dividing lines" that would put the Conservative Party on the wrong side of public opinion. On education policy, though, he seems to have chosen a dividing line that favours the Opposition.
When David Cameron claimed the other day that "the tide of ideas has turned, leaving Gordon Brown on the wrong side of history", I thought it a cheap reproduction Blair cliché. Yet it is the sort of mood music that will be taken seriously if Brown continues to hit the wrong notes.
Let us compare what the two main parties are offering. Labour promises to raise the education-leaving age to 18. The Conservatives are about to publish plans to "increase the number of good school places". Which approach sounds more likely to make the British education system better? Which is a more likely route to achieving the conditions that Brown set out in his speech: a system that is intolerant of failure and which attracts the best graduates into teaching?
The answer is obvious. Yes but, Brown and Balls will say, and they will be right. Yes but raising the education-leaving age to 18 is not a top-down diktat on its own. The policy aims to achieve the "culture change" that Brown described in his speech by offering more options to 16-year-olds to encourage more of them to stay in education by the target date of 2015. And there is much that is good in Balls's White Paper about these changes, which could include employers providing training one day a week. But saying that these options will be "appropriate, interesting, engaging" does not make them so.
The question is always: how? It seems to me that, vague though the Conservative plans are, they are more on the right lines. "More good school places" seems a better place to start than "stay in education until you're 18, like it or not". Nor is the Tory plan to be published later this month as thin as all that. I expect it to include the idea of a "bounty" on the heads of pupils at failing schools, to give good schools an incentive to take them. And Cameron's launch of a Conservative Co-operative Movement last week may look like another essentially symbolic foray, but the idea of parents' co-ops setting up new small schools is a good and clever one.
This week, battle will be joined. Ed Balls and his Tory shadow, Michael Gove, are two of the stars of the next generation. They face each other for their first parliamentary set piece in the Queen's Speech debate on Tuesday. I understand that Gove was nervous about opposing the Government's plan to raise the education-leaving age. Instinctively, he is against compulsion, but he can see the case for telling young people that a life on benefits is not an option. However, he decided that there is a difference between that and telling young people that they must turn up for specified courses.
At the level of the detail, there are enough devils in the sub-clauses to keep MPs happy for weeks. Teenagers who ignore their "attendance notice" could have fines deducted from their wages or be required to do community service – although with imprisonment not an option it is hard to see how they can be made to do anything. Indeed, the Government's own forecast suggests that 10 per cent of the age group will still not be in a "learning programme" when the law comes into force. That is lower than the 24 per cent now, but it is strange to pass a law expecting one in 10 people to disobey it.
The big picture is even more puzzling. Why should Balls make statist compulsion the central point of his approach? Improving the skills of the quarter of 16 to 18s that drop out of education is important, but it does not appear to offer anything to the three-quarters that currently stay on. The Gove approach, on the other hand, seems to do the New Labour trick of concentrating improvement on the poorest, as part of a plan to raise standards all round.
The fuss over the spinning of Brown's speech may pass. But the less obvious mistake may be the one that does the lasting damage: the Prime Minister's decision to give this command-and-control measure priority. In this week's clash between Ed Balls and Michael Gove, therefore, there is a lot at stake. The quality of our education system, the outcome of the next election and the fate of two possible future leaders. No pressure, then, guys. Off you go.Reuse content