The school dinners debate exposes the identity crisis at the heart of Labour

The thorny question is how to raise standards nationally while giving schools and hospitals room to breathe
Click to follow
The Independent Online

After eight years in power, the Government cannot decide whether it should be bossy or sheepishly restrained. Most of the time, it tries to be both.

After eight years in power, the Government cannot decide whether it should be bossy or sheepishly restrained. Most of the time, it tries to be both.

As they compete neurotically with the Conservatives in leaping from one media bandwagon to the next, ministers pay homage to Jamie Oliver. Following Mr Oliver's TV series, they rush to pledge healthier school dinners. If a school in Bootle serves unhealthy food, the Government will address the problem on Mr Oliver's behalf, or more importantly on behalf of the kids consuming the beefburgers and chips. But when the Children's minister, Margaret Hodge, was asked on the BBC's Today programme about the future of slot machines that sell junk food in schools, she was non-committal. Ms Hodge argued that this was a matter for headteachers and for parents.

The Government wants to transform the health of younger kids, but suggests it is the responsibility of others to bring about the transformation. At the same time, ministers speak of the need to liberate headteachers while telling them that they must spend more on improving the quality of their school dinners.

The Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, got caught in a similar bind when she warned about the dangers of advertising junk food on children's television. Boldly, Ms Jowell acknowledged that there was a problem, but suggested timidly that it was a matter for the food companies to resolve. As a result, she got the worst of both worlds. To her detractors, she became bossy Nanny Jowell when her policy was to allow the unruly children to police themselves.

These are two small examples of a much bigger identity crisis for the Government. During Labour's first term, ministers were accused of control freakery, seeking to pull too many levers. The accusation was largely wrong, but ministers came to believe it themselves. In reality, the inexperienced government was nervous of taking control of very much after the 1997 election. It was much happier giving away powers to quangos and the private sector.

In the second term, it has been even keener to allow a thousand flowers to bloom at a local level. Let the headteachers and the local hospitals rule! Let the parents and the patients choose! Yet it is the Government that insists still on being the guardian of every pupil and patient.

When Michael Howard raised the case of one patient's shoulder two weeks ago, the Health Secretary, John Reid, did not respond by arguing that this was not a matter for him. He rushed to the hospital concerned, and would have paid a personal visit to the patient if she had not been surrounded by members of Conservative Central Office at the time of his visit. If he had been qualified, he would probably have carried out the operation himself.

There are signs that the Government's identity crisis is causing confusion as it seeks to make further sweeping changes to schools and hospitals. Last week, the Commons' Education Select Committee made a revealing observation in its final report before the election. The committee, consisting mostly of loyal Labour MPs, concluded: "The evidence we took during our inquiry indicates a troubling slide away from parents choosing schools for their children towards schools choosing the pupils they wish to admit. The Government refuses to acknowledge this trend, let alone to take action to reverse it."

The committee makes a wider point: "The five-year strategy proposes that local authorities should provide strategic leadership. In a system where all schools are functioning independently, what levers will be available to local authorities to persuade schools to act differently?"

It could have asked also what levers the Government possessed to maintain standards. This was a point made by Conor Ryan, David Blunkett's former adviser at the Department for Education, in an article for The Independent. When the Government's five-year plan was published last summer, Mr Ryan wondered about the whereabouts of the levers and which bodies would be pulling them.

Some advisers in Downing Street fume at the findings of the Education Committee. They point to a new and exciting settlement where the Government sets a framework within which the best hospitals and schools will flourish, forcing those that under-perform to raise their standards. Most importantly, they seek to empower patients and parents to change the culture of these institutions. They argue that parents and patients are in a better position to bring about change at a local level than a government in Whitehall.

There is an intense and sincere passion about this in Downing Street. Mr Blair wants to stay on for a third term, largely to reform public services. There is a glint in his eye when the issue is raised. He has rationalised that Gordon Brown blocked his reforming zeal in the second term and that is why the Chancellor might have to be moved from the Treasury in the third. Yet allies of Mr Brown have always insisted the proposals for foundation hospitals were blocked because they had not been properly thought through, not because he was an old Labour conservative.

In this context, the Education Committee's report is also interesting: "We find it difficult to detect a coherent overarching strategy in the Government's proposals for education. The evidence provided to show that the large sums of money to be spent on the new arrangements will produce significant educational benefits is not convincing enough. Whilst the five-year strategy offers some welcome changes, it also contains much that has not been properly thought through."

I note in passing that if this is the view of Labour MPs on the Education Committee a few weeks before a general election, Mr Blair will struggle to get his reforms passed in the Commons if he has a smaller majority in a third term. But the more pressing issue is whether or not the reforms have indeed been fully thought through. I live in a part of north London where there are specialist schools, self-governing schools, selective state schools and comprehensives. Exhausted and demoralised parents do not celebrate the choice available to them. They nervously await the verdict of the best over-subscribed schools.

Imagine if The Sun, the Daily Mail or Jamie Oliver were to run a campaign about the state of a self-governing school in a third term. Ministers would leap to attention and pledge to act. Only they would probably have no powers to act, and nor would local councils carrying out their vaguely defined strategic role. This is a genuinely thorny and complex question. How to raise standards nationally, whether it is kids' diets or health care for the elderly, while giving local schools and hospitals room to breathe?

In my view, part of the answer lies in a more robust local democracy combined with a clearer and, in some cases, more active role for the elected government. The solution cannot be a timid government that is bossy only when Mr Oliver or Rupert Murdoch click their mighty fingers.