Charting the course of the journey so far

MAKING SENSE OF EDUCATION POLICY. By Geoff Whitty. Paul Chapman Publishing. pound;16.99.

This book represents a "struggle" by the director of the London Institute of Education, one of our foremost centres of teacher training and research in education, to understand what lies behind the education policies of recent governments. It is tempting to conclude that if a leading educational sociologist such as Geoff Whitty, who happens also to be brother of the former general secretary of the Labour party, has difficulty with this, there can be little hope for the rest of us. But now, at least, we have this personal odyssey to guide us.

Armed with "the resources of the sociology and politics of education" in which he has invested a lifetime of scholarship, Geoff Whitty looks back over 10 years at what in these circles are known as the New Right "neo-liberal" "quasi-markets" of Margaret Thatcher's and John Major's governments. He compares them with the "meritocracy" of Tony Blair's first term in a commentary that draws upon empirical research, as well as more theoretical insights, and he reflects particularly on the social justice and inclusion promoted by these policies - or not.

He concludes that, for all the hopes, New Labour's changes in its first term were "largely cosmetic". Labour ministers personally embraced diversity with little concern that "in a stratified society, school choice can too easily enable those who have the cultural resources to make the best choices to deny them to others". He found, "Labour's so-called Third way looked remarkably similar to (the Tories') quasi-markets". On privatisation, Labour went further than Thatcher or Major ever contemplated. And the Conservatives' "relatively modest" specialist schools programme became a major plank of Labour's policy that risked creating a hierarchy of schools. "The very diversity New Labour embraced made it difficult to provide a level playing field on which a genuine meritocracy could develop."

The voters may have approved, but it earns what must rank as the harshest of rebukes from Geoff Whitty. "This approach revealed a disturbing lack of sociological thinking in New Labour's education policy." For the author of Sociology and School Knowledge (Methuen 1985) Labour's "standards not structures" soundbite is a double anathema. Not only did it try "to wish away a history in which the selection of children for unequal provision has been the dominant principle"; it also ignored the social and selective functions of the knowledge defining those standards. "An approach based on diverse structures and common standards may have produced the worst of both worlds." Why, he asks, apply diversity to school structures but not to the nature of teaching and learning?

In his early predictions for Labour's second term, Professor Whitty becomes a little more optimistic. He quotes approvingly suggestions that the spin surrounding the expansion of specialist schools is aimed at attracting back a critical mass of middle-class children to schools in disadvantaged areas. And he sees potential in the undersold Excellence in the Cities programme. Labour, he still seems to be hoping, signals right for electoral reasons while moving left to counter disadvantage.

Bob Doe is editor of The TES

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