Leading article: Schools thinking stuck in the shallows

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A grammar school in every town, oh yes! If that is the Conservatives' big idea for the last full week of the election campaign, then John Major deserves the apathy which greets the prospect of his slide from office. As a slogan, it is an insult to the art of paraphrase. What it means is a selective school in every town, if that is what parents want, which most parents do not. As a policy, it is an insult to the intelligence of the voter.

The announcement that Mr Major will make today is a piece of mere symbolism. It is designed to appeal to the widely felt and genuine, but shallow, yearning for a time when the UK could boast at least some good state schools. They were called grammar schools, and many of them were replaced by comprehensive schools which were not as good. But that yearning is like a collective daydream, and it only takes the gentlest of nudges for the nation to stop, think and remember the unfairness of secondary moderns and the 11-plus, and the many very good comprehensive schools that exist today.

The Conservatives know this, of course. It was Tory councils in the 1980s that tried to bring back the selective system in their areas, only to be defeated by parent revolts. Most parents recognised that if a minority of children were chosen, then their precious children faced the risk of not being chosen, and decided it was not a risk worth taking.

The Prime Minister is driven by several impulses, which would seem not to include his own experience of school at Rutlish Grammar in the outer London suburbs, a school he thought unbearably snobbish. One is the market- research tendency in modern politics, which puts education at the top of the list and assumes that superficial nostalgia for grammar schools must form the basis of policy. Another is the ideological tendency of the Conservative party, wedded to the principle of selection in the teeth of opposition from parents. Having failed to return to selection through Tory education authorities, they have gone for the piecemeal approach. This is more likely to succeed, because selection (that is, choice by schools) is the logical corollary of choice by parents, and parental choice has, in the absence of a real education policy, been the theme song of successive Conservative education ministers.

Unfortunately for Mr Major, the fantasy of parental choice has even less hold on parents than the reverie of past grammar-school glory. Most parents have experienced the difference between the "right to express a choice" and the ability to make a choice in practice. Popular schools are difficult to get into and, as The Independent reported last week, parents resort to all kinds of devices to try to break into shrinking catchment areas. What is surprising about the present state of English and Welsh schools is that more have not resorted to academic selection as a way of restricting their intake.

Mr Major's plans will do nothing to encourage more schools to become selective. It borders on the bizarre to suppose that parents of children at a successful comprehensive school will vote for it to become selective. Some will have younger children who they hope will go there under the siblings rule, who might be excluded by an exam. Most of the rest will say, Why should we? The only schools where parents may vote for (partial) selection are those like Archbishop Tenison near Brixton, where the Prime Minister comes from, which now selects part of its intake in an effort to raise its low academic standing.

David Blunkett, more and more likely to be the keystone of a Blair government as Secretary of State for Education and Employment, is right to observe that none of this is relevant to the real challenges faced by our education system. But the Labour party's education policy cannot be marked better than "satisfactory". It too is in thrall to the market-research tendency in politics. Uniforms are believed to be popular, so we'll have them. Discipline? Oh, very much so. Computers? Dead modern. And all plugged into the Internet thingy. What is important, though, is Mr Blunkett's restless search for ways to raise school standards across the board - set against this government's obsession with administrative structures.

It is this restlessness that highlights the central weakness of Labour's case. If education is the "passion" of Messrs Blair, Brown and Blunkett, why will they not spend more on it? You do not need to be a Conservative Central Office researcher, picking holes in the claimed savings from abolishing the Assisted Places Scheme, to regard the sums of money involved as trivial. Of course, smaller infant class sizes are a good start. And, yes, this newspaper has grudgingly accepted that a Labour government would put more money into education over a five-year period. But if Labour's rhetoric of a "world-class education system" is not to sound hollow there needs to be a more serious commitment of resources.

There is something not quite right about Labour's promise to spend pounds 3bn or more from the windfall levy on privatised utilities on what many people will see as "schemes" for the young and long-term unemployed. The argument, no doubt, is that resources have to be devoted to getting down the social security bill to free resources for education. But unemployment is falling anyway, and surely Labour could have stolen some of the Liberal Democrats' best clothes by promising more money for schools. (From a tax which, because it is already discounted by City markets, is the closest thing to a free lunch.)

But perhaps there is a more fundamental deception at the heart of the education debate. Perhaps politicians pretend that education is the first, second and third priority of modern statecraft because we, parents and non-parents, pretend that this is what we want. In which case, we ought to be honest with ourselves before demanding total commitment from elected representatives.