On education, Blair means business

Improving schools must be funded by savings elsewhere - social security in particular

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One of the fastest-forgotten films of 1996 was Dangerous Minds, a gripping Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle in which the star improbably played an ex-marine who starts teaching impossible kids at a high school in-say- South Central Los Angeles. Sheer Hollywood schmalz, of course, and it was more or less dismissed by the posher critics.

Yet it was about something which isn't tackled enough in Anglo-Saxon popular culture: how, if you have no other advantages, being engaged by a good teacher is the one you need most; and about how what happens in school, sometimes even more than what happens at home, is what makes the difference between hope and hopelessness, between rising above the ghetto or being dragged down by it. If nothing else, it preached the absolute centrality of education to social progress.

Which is just what Tony Blair was doing on TV's Breakfast With Frost at the weekend. Recent history is littered with the broken hopes of politicians who promised that education would be their big idea. So Blair went a stage further by saying, in effect, that improvement of Britain's education system would be for him what trade union reform was for Margaret Thatcher. Which is an interesting comparison for two reasons. First, because while Mrs Thatcher was committed to changes in industrial relations in her 1979 manifesto she was distinctly reticent before she became Prime Minister about what turned out to be the dramatically specific ways in which she would do it. And secondly because it invites the immediate gibe that perhaps Blair thinks that he can transform British education, as Margaret Thatcher transformed union legislation, for free.

On the face of it, there is no shortage of ammunition for this charge - which a range of critics, for example in the teaching unions and the Liberal Democrats, have already started to level. David Blunkett has bravely sketched out the savings for higher education that comprehensive student loans will provide. But Labour has still made only a single, very modest, commitment on schools spending: to finance a cut in primary school classes from the money saved by scrapping the private sector Assisted Places Scheme. Yet there aren't many serious people in any party who don't think the state education system needs a lot more money than that.

In the real world, for example, as opposed to the one conjured by Hollywood, a lot of tough, able, and potentially dedicated people need more than ideals to turn their lives upside down by giving 100 per cent commitment as teachers in sink schools. They need public appreciation. Even more, they need a decent salary. But Blair doesn't believe in raising taxes, even to pay for better education. So does he think that mere preaching is enough? No, as it happens. There is a clear sub-text emerging from recent Blair pronouncements. If they mean anything, it is that more will be spent on education, but that it will have to be funded from savings elsewhere - social security reform in particular.

In his book last year, the Tory MP George Walden, who is no sentimental neo-Keynesian, argued that perhaps pounds 5bn a year more was needed for the state system, including universal nursery provision. He suggested savings to pay for it, for example taxing child benefit, putting VAT on books and newspapers and scrapping mortgage interest tax relief - which would raise pounds 3bn and could be presented as an economically sensible move to prevent another house price boom.

Walden's targeted savings may not be Blair's. But the wider principle surely is. This is dangerous territory - though perhaps no more so than the Liberal Democrats' apparently brave attachment to increasing income tax - "if necessary" - to pay for more education spending. A small prize for anyone who hears Paddy Ashdown saying clearly that this means an increase of 1p in the pound rather than using his favoured formula of a "penny on income tax". There is some convincing research which shows that quite a lot of voters think that this means a total of 1p a week extra in tax, or something even more painless.

No, the real problem is that there is a cross-party taboo on talking about many of the potential savings before the election. But it now looks as if not only reducing the "costs and burdens of long-term unemployment" as Labour's document put it last week, but maybe, just maybe, the ending, a la Walden, of some cherished middle-class perks could help to fund an improved state education system.

And that in turn may mean widening the constituency which feels it has a stake in better public education. Ideally that would mean, as Walden also suggested, dismantling the apartheid between private and public sectors and by luring some of the best independent schools back into the state system. It also means convincing those who are doing nicely by private education, or by state grammar schools, or the best comprehensives, that transforming the inner-city schools which the rich and lucky at present ignore for their own children, will mean a more prosperous, more competitive, more civilised, less crime-ridden, less divided society. And this Blair shows every sign of being serious about doing.

The rise and rise of David Blunkett, unmistakeably now an education moderniser, is further evidence that these were more than warm words from Blair at the weekend. That doesn't, of course, mean that he and Blunkett could not do with some help. Step forward a film-maker to excite Britain about public education as Dangerous Minds failed, in the end, to excite America. The Ridings by Mike Leigh, perhaps?

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