Every school should be fit for a Blair

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The Independent Online
How many parents anywhere in the country would knowingly put their children through a bad school if they had the opportunity to send them to a better one? No issue is harder for Labour - morally or politically - than what to do about schools. Emot ions are rising. Easy answers are unavailable. And time, the way the cabinet is carrying on, may be short.

The politically correct thing for Tony Blair and the spokesman for schools, Peter Kilfoyle, to have done is obvious: they should have sent their sons to the nearest comprehensive school. They would have been warmly praised by the teaching unions and reassured the rattled left of the party. It would have been easy.

But it would have been despicable, too. The children of politicians have their lives screwed up enough already. It would have been chilly and smug - a self-righteous gesture, not a righteous one. It would have done nothing to improve Labour policy, whilesacrificing a couple of boys at the altar of ambition. And this is behaviour we are expected to admire?

But when Labour MPs and activists fulminate about inconsistency, they have a point. The rise of the grant-maintained school is not a minor issue; along with testing, league tables and parental choice, it is part of a clear Conservative strategy to reintroduce selection in schools, and destroy the comprehensive idea.

This policy is on the move: there are 640,000 children in grant-maintained schools already (plus 560,000 in the private sector) against the 6.5 million in schools run by local education authorities. In secondary schooling, the take-off is more striking, with grant-maintained status accounting for a fifth of all schools.

The stone-casters are right to be interested in Blair's behaviour, but wrong in the conclusions they draw. When a politician's personal instincts conflict with political principles, then the instincts are the better guide, and the principle is likely to be wrong. If the Blairs, and the Kilfoyles, and millions of others, instinctively look for certain things for their children, then their politics should be geared to getting them for everyone else, too.

The comprehensive system grew out of a concept of politics and government which is disappearing from Britain today. Then, visionary strategies for the country could be decided upon by the political classes and imposed from the centre. Public schoolboys in post-war governments decreed a new kind of schooling for the masses. There was to be no choice: selfish individual preferences had to make way for the greater public good. (Unless you could afford to go private.)

However unfashionable it may to admit it, the social experiment was in many respects a virtuous one. In this snobby country, with its dreadful educational record for poorer families, there is a strong case for an entirely comprehensive system, in which all private schools are merged into the tax-funded system and middle-class activists are press-ganged into the struggle for better schools for all. A generation or two of that and we would have an education system as rotten as that of Germany, Switzerland or most Nordic countries (dream on.)

But this experiment was devised in, and for, a Britain that no longer exists. However good the theory, putting it into practice depends on a top-down political culture in which parents knew their place. And increasingly, thank God, they have forgotten it: Labour policy on schools is in trouble not because the party leader is breaking ranks, but because he is acting like an ordinary modern Briton.

Labour's current thinking is that grant-maintained schools should be brought back under local education authority control. But what does "control'' mean? If they were to be homogenised into a comprehensive system David Blunkett, the spokesman for education, would have simply told the GM sector where to go. Instead he has opened a dialogue with them. This is of great political importance: it is perfectly clear that different types of school, with their own ethos, will still be on offer. So "choice'', as exercised by the Labour leader, remains in the system.

Did I say "remains?" For here we come to the central fallacy of Conservative education policy as it works in practice.

Because the demand for really good state-funded schools outstrips the supply of them; it is rarely parents who choose - it's the good schools who choose the children, increasingly on academic ability. There is a market, but it is a seller's market, with most parents as supplicants. And the only way many parents can exercise choice these days is to buy houses near good schools: if the child doesn't travel, the family does.

Labour is hostile to both current systems of selection: selection by academic exam, and self-selection by mortgage, with the creeping social segregation it implies as better-off families cluster around good schools. So the party is left with a culture ofchoice, and a market of sorts; but without a policy which would allow either to work to benefit its voters.

There are two answers, and Tony Blair has hit on one of them: he has committed himself to a "standards crusade'' to improve bad schools - making it easier to sack bad teachers and to pay more to good ones, including headteachers. This is thoroughly welcome, an essential part of the new Labour populism. Had comprehensive schooling not been introduced at a time when liberal educational theories were spreading, it might have been popular today.

A traditionalist drive for higher standards in poor schools ought to reduce the panicky scramble for a decent state education. But it is Utopian to think that this will be enough.

The second answer is the use of vouchers - educational credits with a face value that can be "cashed'' by parents at the school of their choice. For some on the left, the word voucher reeks of sulphur; it was the policy of the ultra-Thatcherites. But a voucher scheme strongly biased to lower-income families, perhaps giving parents on benefit five or six times the state spending-power of top-rate taxpayers, would be a powerful egalitarian weapon.

It would comprise, as it were, the demand-side policy to match the politically easier supply-side reforms to which Labour is already committing itself. It would go a long way towards empowering families who would like to have a serious voice in their children's education but who, in today's perverted market, haven't.

The Blairs' decision was not hypocritical. But if Labour came to power without serious policies designed to extend to millions of others the same sort of muscle, it is hard to think of another word that would suit.