Opinion: No, Prime Minister

We must confront our past, not continue it,” Tony Blair announced in his Romanes lecture on education (Prospect, February). His history of education is one of state neglect with occasional exceptions (Balfour’s 1902 Act, Butler’s 1944 Act) until Jim Callaghan’s Ruskin speech in 1976. There was then a little progress under the Tories, but basically Labour “inherited a situation too little changed from Callaghan’s day.” The moral is clear: neglect must be succeeded by “national leadership.” Central government must take responsibility for investment in education, raising standards and promoting life-long learning. Then follows the catalogue of “starts” since 1997: more money, especially on primary schools; literacy and numeracy strategies; promotion of information and communications technology, modern languages, music and sport; the creation of specialist schools; a further expansion in post-16 education. Test results have already “improved sharply.” Our mission, Blair ends, “is to mobilise the resolve of this generation to transform Britain into a learning society….”

Blair has constructed a reputable argument, rare enough among politicians these days, and he deserves credit for that. Its weakness is the weakness of his history. There is an alternative story to be told, which is not one of neglect but of creeping collectivisation. On the resources side, this culminated in the 1944 abolition of all fee-paying in state schools, and the creation thereafter of an apartheid between an independent sector, educating less than 10 per cent of pupils, and a free state sector. This was a bipartisan policy, but nevertheless a catastrophic mistake. Most parents were, in effect, cut off from the educational process; resources were limited to what the state could squeeze out of taxpayers; and educational energies were mobilised behind a new class war between the “toffs” and the rest. It has to be said, though-and here Blair is right-that while the state paid up, it was slow to take responsibility for educational outcomes.

Blair’s history also misleads about structure. He now rejects the “one size fits all” comprehensive, but fails to mention that this was largely the creation of central government, especially Labour government, and its education secretary of the 1960s, Tony Crosland. True, there was a local authority groundswell in favour of comprehensives, but the coup de grâce to the mixed system of grammar schools, technical schools, and secondary moderns was delivered by Crosland. His Circular 10/65, together with subsequent directives, ordered local authorities to go comprehensive, with financial penalties for non-compliance. Crosland famously said: “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England and Wales, and Northern Ireland.”

It should be noted that the “skills gap” between Britain and its competitors followed comprehensive reorganisation. A Brookings Institution report on the British economy, published in 1968, found no evidence of such a gap; not only was the “level of education” of the British labour force about the same as in other European countries, but it was improving faster “than in Germany or Denmark, and in the same range as France, the Netherlands and Norway.”

Blair’s case amounts to this: having taken responsibility for the resourcing and structure of British education, the state was tardy in taking responsibility for outcomes. You can put it less benignly: having eviscerated every other pressure for higher standards, the state found that only “relentless pressure from the centre” could supply the necessary motive power.

It is possible to criticise the government for what it has done, or failed to do, within the logic Blair himself has set up for discussing these issues. Blair failed to mention the recruitment crisis in the teaching profession, especially for maths teachers. And it is not clear how “specialist” schools are supposed to advance the standards’ agenda. Blair trumpets last year’s improved national test results for 11 year olds. But he fails to question the validity of the tests themselves. And he fails to address the long-term funding crisis in the universities.

But there is a more fundamental criticism. Why should anyone believe that politicians are capable of running an education service efficiently? The state’s function in education, as in most other areas, is surely to set up a framework of regulation and finance which encourages spontaneous efforts at improvement. This is standard Third Wayism. With at least one part of his mind the prime minister is aware of this. He talks about the need for a “greater diversity in the supply of schools,” of encouraging “a wider range of school-promoters.” This may be a euphemism for private providers. At the very least it must mean some kind of end to the LEA monopoly on running schools. But the difficult questions of how these non-LEA providers are to enter the system, how much freedom they will have to innovate, are not faced. So far as we can judge, the Education Action Zone initiative to promote government-directed diversity has been a miserable failure.

A different reading of history leads to different policy conclusions. A combination of income-contingent vouchers and fee-paying would be the most effective way both of injecting extra resources into education at all levels, and of increasing the diversity of institutions, for which the prime minister hankers. Public testing, preferably by university-based bodies, could be retained for informational purposes, but the rest of the bureaucratic apparatus could be jettisoned. Competition can be combined with equity. But it requires a more powerful political imagination than Tony Blair showed in his Romanes lecture.