Egalitarians versus angry parents

The education debate yesterday in Brighton produced a clash between two wholly different worlds
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The Independent Online
When a conference comes politically alive the result is exhilarating but brutal. From the deep dark heart of Labour's conscience came Roy Hattersley's roar of fury about selective schooling. Drama. Uproar. He was met by an savage counter-attack from David Blunkett. Sensation. We rarely see personal animosity so nakedly displayed these days. It was very satisfying.

More than that, though, it was a modest moment of history. Hattersley was speaking for Labour's historical egalitarianism, famously summarised by Tony Crosland's promise to himself to destroy ''every fucking grammar school'' in the country. Blunkett, though, was speaking as a parent who has two children at a comprehensive school today and knows what followed. And he carried the day.

Comprehensive education matters to Labour more than any other single issue except the NHS. This is partly because the party has so many members who are teachers and lecturers. But it's also because Labour is heavily dominated by middle-class people whose parents are, or were, working-class and who have risen in life because of free state education.

So the current failures of the comprehensive system, experienced by Labour parents, too, are a source of real pain to the party. They are rhetorically explained away as entirely the result of Tory meanness and Tory malice. Yesterday, the first speaker on behalf of the party's national executive, Catherine Taylor, offered three classic Labourist propositions on this theme. She told us that vandalism in schools was a result of underfunding, that the Government was ''trying to wipe out the teaching profession'' and that ''schools do not fail, but the system does.'' Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Of course underfunding is real. Even the current Education Secretary privately admits it. Class sizes are too high, buildings are decaying, valuable teachers redundant. But who believes that more money, and nothing more, would reverse the middle-class flight from comprehensive schools? It is finally becoming permissible, even in the Labour Party, to admit that there's a lot more to say. There are bad teachers, ill-disciplined schools and a lazy lack of rigour to blame as well.

It may be that the single great disaster of British post-war education was that comprehensive schooling coincided with the fashions for child- centred teaching, mixed-ability classes and other experiments. Some of these may work for some children in some schools with very small classes. But in large mixed schools their results have been mostly bleak and sometimes catastrophic. A schooling revolution which was meant to liberate millions of children ended up by betraying many of them.

Yesterday, Roy Hattersley ignored this. He romanticised comprehensive schooling and, by demonising a few selective schools, missed the point. The trouble isn't that some wicked headmasters are trying to pack their schools with clever children. It is that so many middle-class people are desperately trying to escape from comprehensive schools - and for very good reasons.

For the truth is that if the grant-maintained schools and the scattering of grammar schools were outlawed tomorrow, Britain would still have a two-tier education system.

It is difficult to pin down how many of those parents who can find the money to do so, currently send their children to private schools. According to the OPCS, there are 740,000 children who come from professional, managerial and skilled non-manual households, and 560,000 children in private schools. Some of the first group won't be able to pay private fees; some of the latter will be children from abroad. But this seems to confirm anecdotal evidence that a very large proportion of those who can buy their children out of comprehensives do so. And we haven't even mentioned the large numbers who have bought educational privilege through mortgages, moving to better areas. The middle classes, in short, are leaving.

The real question for supporters of state education is, what might bring them back? The Conservative answer has been ''choice''. But this looks like a dead-end: for most parents across most of the country, there isn't a real choice. A market in schools, like a market in anything else, requires there to be waste. A supermarket selling 10 kinds of sandwich throws away sandwiches each evening. An educational system offering varieties of school requires surplus places. Yet for sound public finance reasons, the Government wants to squeeze out every surplus place in the state sector.

Unless we are vastly to increase the schools budget or are prepared to allow different mini-schools to co-exist on the same site, and in private homes, or are prepared to use a voucher system, we can forget about choice as the answer to state education. Thus far, Labour has looked at the idea of vouchers, biased in their value to benefit poorer families, but has rejected it as too costly and experimental to impose on schools which have already undergone years of rapid change.

In all this turmoil how much does the future of grant-maintained schools, the subject of Hattersley's revolt, matter? He was right to argue that allowing selection in the state system would finally destroy comprehensive education. You might as well then subsidise private schools and be done with it. Some schools have been sliding towards selection by interviewing parents (something that is against current departmental rules) and it is fair enough for Labour to try to stop this. But the rest is a side- issue.

The Blunkett-Hattersley clash was really between different worlds, different ways of thinking. Hattersley was expressing the anger of an old social- democratic egalitarian and a centraliser. He was speaking ideologically, abstractly, to a party which for decades has been unwilling or unable to confront reality about the failures of state education. ''For God's sake, let's stop apologising about comprehensive schools,'' he said. Oh no? We could do with some apologies, some day, from someone.

Blunkett, by contrast, spoke for the current reality of state education, a world where schools do fail. It is a world in which middle-class parents who stay with comprehensives, like Blunkett and Jack Straw, are the minority and parents like Tony Blair, who don't, are the norm. There's no point bellowing; this is Britain now.

Blunkett wants to redeem state education by a political counter-attack on bad teaching, low standards, poor discipline and failed teaching methods. He wants a cultural revolution, rather than an organisational one. This is a difficult project for politicians to embark on, which involves confrontation with many professionals. I have my doubts about how much can be done. But no one who has heard Blunkett on the subject can doubt his determination to try. The iron has entered his soul about this.

For a fierce argument or a well-made sentence, there is no politician more valuable than Roy Hattersley. But as an Education Secretary, I'd go for the angry parent any day.