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All we need is ideals

IF ALL the world's a stage, then the two leading players featured in our obituary columns this week will surely have exited at opposite ends of the footlights.

Lady Plowden, the most maligned "do-gooder" in education history, advocated "positive discrimination" for schools in deprived urban areas. Basil Bernstein, however, remained sceptical. "Education cannot compensate for society," he warned.

Thirty years on, it seems Professor Bernstein's depressing analysis was largely justified. The vultures were soon wheeling over the "educational priority areas" that the Plowden report recommended. And although education action zones have taken their place, the value of such anti-poverty strategies remains unproven (Research Focus, page 25).

But who can blame Lady Plowden and her Great and Good colleagues for being optimistic? Their 1967 report was published at the height of the hippie era when the Beatles' "All you need is love" was the global anthem.

No wonder it set its face against streaming by ability in primary schools and rote learning in rows. The former Tory minister, George Walden, maintains that Plowden turned prmaries into "Wendy houses where everyone felt good and next to nothing was learnt". But that is a harsh judgment. The Plowden report's heart was in the right place, even if its head was slightly askew.

We have to commend Plowden for seeking the abolition of corporal punishment and greater parental involvement. But its nursery education proposals appear timid compared with the Government's new plans.

Lady Plowden stayed at home with her own children ("I wanted to cherish them," she said). So it is unsurprising that she proposed only half-time nursery schooling - something unknown in continental Europe.

That legacy remains with us today but the Government deserves credit for deciding to provide childcare for nought to two-year-olds in disadvantaged areas. This bold policy could give countless children a better start in life while enabling mothers to return to work - - if they want to.

But we must hope that ministers' idealism will not be sapped by discussions on what Margaret Hodge calls the "infrastructure of nursery provision". The Plowden report contained no such jargon - and was all the better for it.

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