One of the persistent myths in British politics is that while Tony Blair was a bold, crusading reformer, Gordon Brown and his allies are "anti-reform". The myth surfaces most days of the week and currently takes the form of questions about whether Mr Brown has a "vision". Those posing the question argue that compared with his swashbuckling predecessor the new Prime Minister lacks a radical edge.
With a cautious flourish, the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, has exposed the myth. He does so in a way that makes it harder – although not impossible – for the more reactionary elements of the British media to protest. Mr Balls has announced that three new diplomas will be launched in science, languages and humanities. A review of A-levels will follow their introduction.
Potentially, this is a move of historic significance. At last, there is a possibility that the debilitating chasm between so-called vocational qualifications and the apparent superiority of A-levels will close. Mr Balls holds out the prospect that all teenagers will take diplomas, with the support of employers and the elite universities, a mini- revolution in education policy.
The approach of Mr Balls and Gordon Brown shows the divide between pro and anti-reformers within new Labour is more complex than mythology allows. In October 2004, the former schools inspector, Sir Mike Tomlinson, launched his government-commissioned report calling for A-levels and vocational exams to be replaced by diplomas.
The proposal had the support of Charles Clarke and David Miliband when they were ministers at the Department of Education. Both of them put the case to Mr Blair. Although this was the period in which Mr Blair made speeches about his boldness with a messianic zeal, he acted with characteristic caution. He opposed the reform, fearful of middle England voters and their newspapers wanting to cling to A- levels. Some relatively minor diplomas were introduced, but they were undermined immediately by Mr Blair declaring that A-levels were the "gold standard". That was more or less the end of the matter.
Mr Balls has revived the issue in spite of the obvious risks that terrified the supposedly fearless Mr Blair. Like Mr Brown, Mr Balls is a cautious reformer, but at least he attempts to reform, a much harder exercise than making speeches about the importance of "change". Indeed, his and Mr Brown's approach is the precise opposite of Mr Blair, who used to announce a revolution in advance of a reform and then quite often implemented small incremental changes. This week, Mr Balls was almost neurotically careful to play down the changes – even if the consequences are revolutionary.
He follows the policy-making model for reform he and others navigated when they were at the Treasury: establish a wide coalition of support, move slowly in order not to alienate voters unnecessarily, but never lose sight of the radical objective at the end of the sequence.
When Mr Balls became Schools Secretary, he wanted to revive the diplomas but knew that such a move would be pointless without the support of business and the leading universities. After much consultation over the summer, this week's initiative was not only launched by Mr Balls, but also by Richard Lambert, the Director General of the CBI, Sir Mike Tomlinson and representatives from the leading universities. This is what Sir David Frost used to call a dream ticket when he introduced diverse newspaper reviewers on his television show.
Mr Balls's current package is convoluted. It endorses A-levels and diplomas. But by keeping his options open he has widened support significantly for reform.
Clearly there are risks in Mr Balls's caution. Perhaps the whole enterprise will become a farcical mess with A-levels competing with diplomas and no one knowing which route to take, or with the best pupils still opting for A-levels in which case two-tier exams will become disastrously more embedded.
Also, Mr Balls faces some political risks without the benefit of implementing a single sweeping reform. With the Conservatives sensing blood after the Brownite cock- ups over the early election story they claim to be the defenders of "excellence" in their support for A-levels. But in opposing the reforms, the Conservatives take risks too, placing themselves at odds with the dream ticket Mr Balls has assembled, one that goes well beyond the Labour Party.
Others will complain that the proposals are not risky enough and that Mr Balls should have announced the introduction of diplomas and the abolition of A-levels in a single leap. Such a move would have been simpler. But he would not have had the support of the CBI and the leading universities. Without the backing of such institutions, the reform would be doomed to fail.
It takes patience, but this model for implementing controversial reform worked in the past in terms of building up support for a tax increase for the NHS in Labour's second term and for re-distributive tax credits in the first. Both policies were radical and risky. They had cautious Blairites shaking with fear. Ultimately they were introduced with widespread support.
I sense a trap for Mr Brown in the demands that he outline his "vision". In 1997, if he had proclaimed his long-term aspirations about increasing public spending, Labour would probably have lost the election. Sometimes it is better to implement radical policies and, once they are part of the consensus, explain that this was your vision all along. Mr Blair used to make speeches once a month about his vision. Many of them were brilliantly argued. But, apart from Europe, his vision happily coincided with that of the mighty newspapers and therefore he tended to get an easy ride, at least until the end. Quite often, though, any leader's vision, if candidly expressed, would command limited support. That's why speeches about "the future" tend to be banal. They are worded to maximise support rather than start a vote-losing but stimulating debate.
In relation to education, the vision of Mr Brown and Mr Balls is becoming clearer through the cautious evolution of policy. There will be more investment in state schools to compete with the private sector, city academies will be more rooted in the local communities and now there is the prospect of diplomas replacing A-levels. I am told that Mr Balls believes this is the most likely consequence of this early cautious announcement.
Mr Brown and his allies have shown themselves to be hopelessly flawed at political choreography in recent weeks. But they are more skilled in the arts of radical policy-making. People might oppose Mr Balls's reforms and some clearly already do. But it is time to end the myth about Brownites being "anti-reform". Mr Balls spearheads sweeping changes in education, even if at this early stage he is too scared to make such a claim.Reuse content