LEADING ARTICLE : A painful lesson for Labour

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Labour has learned from the Harriet Harman affair. It is finally coming to terms with the shortcomings of the comprehensive legacy in education. Ms Harman's decision to send her son to a selective schools provoked a national row about the merits and failures of comprehensive education. One of the few commonly agreed conclusions of that debate was that new Labour's policy on education was as clear as mud. Yet if there is one policy that should define what new Labour could mean for Britain it is education. As Tony Blair has reminded us repeatedly, education is the power house of the Asian economies. If new Labour stands for something new in education it must be able to marry the pursuit of excellence and high standards with equality of opportunity and choice. If it cannot strike the right balance over education, it may well fail in other areas as well.

Yesterday David Blunkett, the party's education spokesman, began the task by responding to the concerns many parents feel about the mediocre quality of many secondary schools. Labour has long been trapped within its own theology about comprehensive schools. Rightly fired by a passionate hatred of the divisiveness of the old 11-plus examination, the party has failed to recognise the many failings of the comprehensive system created to replace it. As a result many parents have believed Labour to be defending education orthodoxy rather than addressing their concerns.

Mr Blunkett admitted that comprehensives were too often associated with rigid mixed-ability teaching, low standards and drab uniformity. Most significantly, he also acknowledged that they had failed to make much of an impact on Britain's deepest educational shortcomings: "After 30 years of comprehensive education, the pattern of excellence at the top and chronic under-performance at the bottom persists." There can be no more damning indictment of the policy's failure.

How do Mr Blunkett's proposals to resuscitate comprehensives measure up? The most ambitious claim in Mr Blunkett's speech was that we can create more diversity and choice without introducing selection or stigma. Greater setting for subject teaching makes good sense. Allowing bright children to progress faster will help to stimulate a small minority. He wants "families of schools" to work together, so that pupils at one school can take advantage of excellence at another nearby - for example by using their sports facilities, or via the Internet. These are admirable proposals that should be pursued, but they still fail to address many of the main concerns felt by parents.

The rhetoric has changed but still this is only a first step towards a new policy. Sadly, Mr Blunkett still dodges the important issue of parental choice. It is unclear from his speech how much choice parents would get over which specialist school to send their child to. Nor does he confront the tricky question of how oversubscribed schools should select their pupils.

Still it seems the Harman affair has set in motion a process of rethinking within the Labour Party that could eventually free it from its education dogma. Mr Blunkett has taken a first significant step down that road by admitting to the failings of comprehensive schools and showing he is open to new ideas. Tony Blair must make sure the search goes on and on and on.