Steve Richards: If you want to understand politics, just examine the explosive education debate

Mr Balls is accused of being a Stalinist for enforcing a law supported by the Conservatives

Share
Related Topics

Follow closely the current explosive debate on education.

Suddenly the wider political situation starts to make sense, showing why Gordon Brown is in deep trouble, but also why his political opponents from within his party and outside have many questions to answer as they project their vague plans for schools with an unjustified self-confidence.

The big political picture was framed more than two years ago when David Cameron supported Tony Blair's confused proposals for secondary schools. The policies were aimed at giving parents more choice but, prior to changes reluctantly accepted by Mr Blair, would have allowed schools more freedom to select pupils.

Whatever the flaws of Mr Blair's proposals, Mr Cameron's offer of support was an astute and hugely significant move. Instead of striding further to the right of Mr Blair, as previous Tory leaders had done, Mr Cameron and his entourage recognised that on the whole Mr Blair was acting in the same way as they would like to do. Why not back him?

Ever since they have been the heirs to Blair in public service reform, pointing out mischievously that they would do what he would have liked to have done. In doing so, they have forged an informal alliance with the extreme Blairites, some leading Liberal Democrats and much of the right-wing media.

As some senior Brownites privately acknowledge, the strategic positioning of the Conservatives over issues such as education present them with a broader dilemma. They cannot disown their previous leader even if the Tories in effect claim him as one of theirs. Apart from anything else, an overt move away from Mr Blair's attachment to a free-for-all in schools would split the top of the party, where quite a few Blairites still cling to populist and simplistic phrases about "choice" and "power to the people".

So Mr Brown juggles, Harold Wilson-like, in an attempt to keep his broad church together, promoting Blairites, preaching the mantra of "reform" (a conveniently vague mantra), while still seeking to signal a few changes (very few) from the Blair era. Like Harold Wilson, he achieves a sort of superficial unity but without much sense of direction and purpose.

Mr Blair's more ardent followers argue that the Tories' support for their hero's education reforms shows that he shifted the debate leftwards. This is a fantasy. The Conservative leadership recognised Mr Blair was on its terrain and wisely supported him. It was not the other way around.

Look at the row that has erupted over the attempts by the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, to enforce the admissions code, the single attempt to ensure fairness in the wild jungle that passes for education policy. Last week Mr Balls dared to point out that some schools are trying to get around the code by seeking payments from prospective parents and by using other devious means to deter the less privileged from applying.

In theory, he should be cheered from across the political spectrum for seeking to ensure that all parents have a chance of choosing a school, rather than allowing schools to select the parents. Instead, the Conservatives are up in arms, in alliance once more with the extreme Blairites and some of the more distinguished Conservative supporting columnists. Mr Balls is accused of being a Stalinist for enforcing a law that in theory is supported by the Conservatives who claim to be against selection. The wider education debate is similarly contorted. For example, the controversies over city academies are often conflated with the debate about "choice". They are entirely separate. Academies have worked reasonably well. It should be no surprise that they have done so. They have had the assiduous attention of the crusading schools minister, Lord Adonis, and some generous funding.

It is a myth that they float entirely free. The introduction of academies marks a shift away from local authorities to the centre. The Conservatives support academies and want to see a lot more of them. Do they become Stalinist as a result? For sure they would have to appoint the equivalent of many Lord Adonises, based in Whitehall, to preside over a big expansion. Already Lord Adonis rarely sleeps and there are only 80 or so academies. In the meantime, Mr Balls encourages the academies to become more involved in local communities and yet he is the one accused of being Stalin.

The debate about choice in secondary schools is even more topsy-turvy. In theory, who could be against choice? What bliss it would be as a parent to decide whether to choose one good school or another equally thriving institution.

But for all parents to be in such a position very quickly would cost a fortune. Here is the shadow schools secretary, Michael Gove, in a speech delivered at the end of last month:

"We will change the law so that all sorts of organisations ... charities, cooperatives and new education providers can set up new state academies, independent of political control.

"These schools will receive the same government funding as other schools in their community for every pupil they teach. All academies will be free and non-selective."

Who will pay for this paradise of free, non-selective choice? It seems that if parents are dissatisfied with a school they could set up a new one. Presumably the old school would not close as some of the teachers and pupils would still be there.

If they all moved to the new one, it would be the same as the old school, which would be a little on the silly side. The old school would cost a substantial sum to run. Setting up the new one would not be cheap. So for a time, at least, genuine choice would mean a surplus of schools, good teachers and places. This would be in Britain, a country conditioned to assume that public spending is a sin.

Separately, Alan Milburn has argued that a good school should have the flexibility to take more pupils from the bad schools. This sounds great, but where are the additional buildings going to come from to create the bigger good school? And will a good school remain so attractive when it becomes much bigger?

And if these schools are "independent" of political control, as Mr Gove envisages, to whom will they be accountable?

Will there be no national standards and are those standards not the legitimate topic for political debate? Presumably, central government would keep some sort of eye on these schools. If that happens is Mr Gove playing Stalin under the guise of letting people free, or will there be no national standards? As far as education is concerned, those gathered around the Blairite agenda have all the populist phrases and none of the detailed policy answers. But because the agenda is still fashionable, Mr Brown lacks the confidence to expose its shallowness. Education is a blurred muddle and so is British politics. Keep watching this debate.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Argyll Scott International: FP&A Manager Supply Chain

Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Argyll Scott is recruiting for a Permane...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property NQ+

£30000 - £50000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: COMMERCIAL PROPERTY SOLI...

Argyll Scott International: Retail Commercial Finance Analyst

Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Due to further expansion, a leading inte...

Langley James : Senior Technician; Promotion & Training Opp; Borough; upto £32k

£27000 - £32000 per annum + training: Langley James : Senior Technician; Promo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands in Shanghai  

Is Russia and China’s ‘Nato of the East’ more than a Potemkin alliance?

Nigel Morris
A petition calling for Natalie Bennett, the leader of the Green Party, to be included has been signed by nearly 200,000 people  

Let me list the reasons that the Green Party should definitely not be allowed into the TV election debates...

Mark Steel
US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines