The Sketch: A bit of sliced Clarke smells like baloney

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The Independent Online

Charles Clarke never said, so he says, that medieval historians were of merely ornamental use. What he says he actually said was that he was against the medieval idea of a university. Tertiary education, he tells us should be about the acquisition of skills that assist in wealth creation, which will thereby help the Government meet its employment targets - not learning for learning's sake.

Whichever way you slice Mr Clarke he comes up smelling of baloney. Medieval universities with their courses in law, theology, classics and flagellation were ruthlessly single-minded in teaching students how to get on in the world. God's Law, at the time, was not only written in Latin but also mainly about punishment. If Mr Clarke is really against the idea of a medieval university I'll eat my mortar board.

My bluff old headmaster used to say: "The value of a university education is that it teaches you to be able to tell when someone's talking rubbish." Of course politicians - Mr Clarke more than any other - hate that idea. Universities are there to fulfil the social policy obligations imposed on them by the Government.

The Urgent Question Mr Clarke was called to answer was: "What's all this about targets, then?" The morning papers all said Mr Clarke had abandoned his targets and testing regime and would let primary schools get on with it in their own way. So he came in to say that he was massively in favour of targets and testing and that it was going to continue, but in such a way that he could say he was freeing the schools at the same time.

The Tory spokesman, made two useful points: "The language of autonomy is merely a device for shifting the blame for failure," he said. That is certainly a happy by-product of the minister's new strategy. And second, the national targets will also only be met or missed in 2006 - or in layman's terms, after the next election. Finally, the Tory spokesman laid out his prescription: stop interfering, trust the professionals and give real choice to parents.

This may not be the normal political rubbish, whatever it sounds like. This may be vouchers. I think the Tories are edging towards vouchers in health and education, though obviously, without being able to call them that.

Vouchers are how the Government simultaneously stops interfering, leaves professionals alone and gives (in theory, at least) choice to parents. We must follow this carefully.

Phil Woolas, the Liberal Democrat, came up with the most likeable rhetorical point. In science, he said, no targets had been set and yet results had increased faster there than in any other area. The less politicians do, the better things turn out. And why? It's the first law of politics (as proven by the Bank of England's independence): Everything politicians touch turns to sewage.

Simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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