Lesson number one for Blunkett

If Labour is serious about public schools it must beware Whitehall wile s, warns Peter Kellner
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The Independent Online
Here we go again. David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, yesterday confirmed that his party was considering the withdrawal of charitable status from Britain's public schools. His idea is not a new one. Both of Labour's manifestos in 1974 pr omisedthe same reform - but the Civil Service managed to kill it. If "new Labour" is serious about scrapping charitable status this time, it needs to study the gap between the fiery policies devised in opposition in the past and its feeble record in gov ernment.

Our story starts in the early Sixties. Harold Wilson regarded public schools as an impediment to the kind of classless society that would exploit the white heat of technology for the common good. In its 1964 manifesto, Labour promised to "set up an educational trust to advise on the best way of integrating the public schools into the state system of education".

The trust was set up, in the shape of a Public Schools Commission, chaired by Sir John Newson. It reported in 1968, made various half-baked proposals, and was immediately shelved. Labour's election-losing manifesto in 1970 spoke vaguely of the need for "full integration of secondary education", but promised no specific action.

Labour's main policy-making committees moved to the left between 1970 and 1974. Wilson managed to prevent many of their ideas appearing in the February 1974 manifesto, but one that did survive concerned public schools. Following the failure to achieve any significant change in the Sixties, Wilson backed the view that a specific reform might achieve more than a general commitment to integrate public and state schools. So Labour promised that "all forms of tax relief and charitable status for public schools will be withdrawn".

That election saw Wilson return to Downing Street, but only at the head of a minority government. However, the party repeated its commitment in October 1974, when Labour - just - achieved an overall majority.

So a Labour government had the chance to implement the very policy that David Blunkett is now considering. Twelve months later Fred Mulley, Wilson's education secretary, was planning its implementation. However he, and all those who had worked to design Labour's policy on public schools, had failed to allow for Whitehall's powers of resistance.

On 9 October 1975 Sir William Pile, permanent secretary at the Department for Education, sent Mulley a memo on the subject. He did not say that withdrawal of charitable status was a daft idea: that would have been wholly improper. Instead he drew Mulley's attention to "technical problems to which at present nobody knows the answers".

Pile went on: "First the term `public schools' has no definable meaning. There are substantial problems of definition involved in discriminating between one kind of school and another. Secondly, there is at the root of the matter the problem that charitable status is not enjoyed by the schools as such but by the institutions which provide them.

"Thirdly, any progress in relation to the withdrawal of tax reliefs is critically dependent upon finding ways of redefining charities or discriminating between charities... "Last, an independent school provided by charity enjoys a 50 per cent relief from

rates on the school site. The withdrawal would involve legislation and the question of discriminating between one kind of school and another would of course have to be faced."

Pile concluded that the immediate responsibility for action "lies primarily not with you but with the Home Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for the Environment. I cannot think of anything that we ourselves can usefully do in the interim."

Pile's memo - highly confidential, of course - was a classic of its kind: in order to block reform he listed the difficulties and then said that the task of surmounting them lay with other ministers. His tactic worked: Mulley shelved the policy. Labour's1979 manifesto contained no mention of it.

Was the ease with which Pile got his way a result of Mulley's inexperience? Far from it. Mulley had been a minister throughout Wilson's 1964 government. Although he had taken over as education secretary only four months before Pile wrote his memo, he wasfamiliar with Whitehall's ways and wiles. Yet he felt unable to counter Pile's arguments.

No public announcement was ever made of this U-turn. Forms of words were devised to pretend that policy remained on track. When Joan Lestor, a junior education minister, was preparing to speak some months later in a Cambridge Union debate, a departmentalnote suggested that "it would be inadvisable for Miss Lestor to suggest any date by which `charitable status' as such might be expected to be withdrawn from public schools. It would be advisable to speak rather in terms of the `fiscal benefi ts associated with charitable status' - a fine distinction, perhaps, to the ears of a lay audience, and indeed one which may be lost on them; if so, so much the better."

Thus did Labour's plans to reform Britain's public schools run aground: not on the rocks of open debate, but in the swamps of secret advice, buck-passing and deliberate deception.

If Labour wins the next election, it will have a cabinet whose combined ministerial experience will be less than Fred Mulley's own experience in 1975. It will inevitably run into Whitehall's doubts, not just in education but in many other areas of policy. And many of those doubts will be justified. The 1975 story can be regarded either as a textbook example of partisan Whitehall obstructionism or as an honest attempt by senior officials to save the Labour government from a policy that had not been properly thought through in the first place.

Whichever version is believed - and maybe both contain some truth - this trip down memory lane should remind Labour that effective radicalism requires more care in making policy, and more skill in handling the Whitehall machine that the party displayed in either the Sixties or the Seventies.