David Cameron was thrown off course by his party's new grammar school policy this summer. The Tories have abandoned their support for new selection by ability (except, perhaps, where grammar schools still exist). In the process, their new schools policy emphasises lifting standards rather than changing structures.
It all felt very nostalgic. I helped David Blunkett to develop New Labour's approach to education in the mid-Nineties. At that stage, we knew that in order to win support in marginal constituencies, we had to drop the idea of abolishing grammar and grant-maintained (GM) schools.
So, we created foundation schools, a less contentious form of GM schools, and said that existing grammars would remain while parents wanted them. On grammars, from a different starting point, we ended up where the Tories are now.
Deciding those policies was no less divisive for Labour in 1995 than it has been for the Tories 12 years later. Only after a very acrimonious Labour conference did the policy change with one of the narrowest majorities of those pre-election years, a process which led Blunkett mistakenly to say that the policy would mean "no selection" rather than "no further selection", even though the policy on which delegates were voting made clear that the grammars would stay unless parents voted them out.
In a curious echo of where the Tories are now, we then attacked the government for its failures on literacy and numeracy – standards were much lower then – and positioned Labour as the party of higher standards. Blunkett had made this his goal in his first statement as shadow education secretary. And he quickly embraced performance tables, testing and Ofsted inspections as the means to that end. Standards not structures became his catchphrase.
Last year, as Labour set about creating city academies and trust schools, Tony Blair told the annual Specialist Schools and Academies Trust conference: "Over time, I shifted from saying 'its standards not structures' to realising that school structures could affect standards." More recently, we have had the new schools' secretary Ed Balls promise that he would "focus our efforts not on structures but on standards in the classroom," while announcing plans to speed up Blair's academies programme.
Now that the Tories have ditched selection and embraced academies, such debate as there is between the parties is over how to lift standards in primary and secondary schools. But that is because the structural change is being put in place and has cross-party support.
And this has always been a political not a practical distinction. As Blunkett was downplaying structures, he embarked on the expansion of specialist schools. Labour's first major legislation was the School Standards and Framework Act, with far more structural than curriculum change, since the literacy and numeracy strategies were implemented through exhortation not legislation.
What Labour was seeking to do was to bury issues which would lose votes and which would undoubtedly take up all its energies in government. The grammar school policy was hardened ahead of the Wirral South by-election in early 1997, after a moment of pure farce as Blunkett visited a local grammar as secretary-of-state in waiting while the Tory schools minister Eric Forth picketed outside.
Now the Tories are trying to copy Labour's winning strategy from 1997, hence their "no new grammars" policy and their front bench's refusal to accept early proposals from their policy review group to abandon catchment areas in order to produce fairer school admissions arrangements.
Labour could never have closed grammar schools – or forced them to become comprehensives – in 1997 any more than the Tories opened new grammars after 1979. For both parties, the policy has been a symbolic statement to signal moderation on education.
Yet standards and structures are pretty closely linked. The academies are seen to be successful because their exam results are rapidly improving. A recent study claiming specialist schools were unsuccessful – despite a twelve-point advantage in those getting five good GCSEs – relied on an analysis of comparative exam results.
But whatever the links in reality, one thing is for sure. No party wants to contest the next election refighting past battles over school structures. Time will tell whether they can lift the standard of education debate as a result.
The writer was senior education adviser to Tony Blair from 2005 to 2007
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