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

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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

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