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Creeping convergence

What a difference a year makes in education politics. Or even half a year. It is less than six months since Gillian Shephard took over as Education Secretary, and already she has totally transformed the dysfunctional scene left behind by her predecessor John Patten: sorting out the chaos, soothing feelings and, like a good nanny, helping troublesome charges to find a way out of their tantrums without losing too much face.

By November The Spectator had chosen her as Minister to Watch in its annual Parliamentary awards, and veteran political correspondent Alan Watkins had named her as his dark horse for future party leadership (surely not just because of the lack of competition). Last week, setting the seal on those first sparkling months in office, came her Christmas present from the National Union of Teachers. The last pocket of rebels is ready to surrender. The union's leadership will recommend an end to the test boycott in a new ballot.

Exactly a year ago, John Patten was sweating out his Christmas hols with an advance copy of Sir Ron Dearing's national curriculum report, on edge to know whether it had cut a bold enough swathe through statements, Orders and ticklists to get him off the boycott hook and out of the political wilderness. Yes and no, came the grudging answer as the year wound on. Like the slimmer look, was the first response; may, or may not, do the tests; the Education Secretary would still have to go, if the Government's education policies (and education service) were to survive.

When Gillian Shephard moved in to Sanctuary Buildings at the end of July, tests were still the trickiest item on the agenda waiting on her desk. She dealt with the issue in her own serene, sure-footed way, but not by backing down on policy: there was to be no moratorium on tests for reflection-time, as some were urging; the full-scale tests for 11-year-olds would go ahead according to timetable; stricter guidelines would convince heads that it was their duty to have the tests carried out and reported. Above all, sweet reasonableness would persuade parents and public that any teachers who continued a boycott in the face of all that Dearing and external markers were doing for them would be rebels without a cause. Facing a future isolated from the other unions and out of public sympathy, the NUT's leadership, at least, has seen the point. Mrs Shephard will be able to meet next week's North of England conference in confident mood.

There are, however, areas where Mrs Shephard has quietly executed skilful footwork to extricate the Government from the more embarrassing excesses of her predecessors - and in doing so has met the Opposition coming round the other way. On league tables, parent choice, the future of grant-maintained schools and the role of local government a creeping convergence is developing, which is causing far more trouble for Labour's education spokesman, David Blunkett, than for Mrs Shephard. On league tables they have both embraced the idea of a value-added approach to give maximum information to both parents and schools about school effectiveness. Result: Mrs Shephard wins wide applause for listening to constructive advice from educationists; Mr Blunkett gets sackfuls of angry letters from teachers who distrust fancy variations and the new-look Labour party approach almost as much as they hate league tables.

The difficulty Mrs Shephard faced on grant-maintained schools was that the sweeping ambitions set out by both Kenneth Clarke and John Patten before her were plainly not going to be met. All secondary schools would not have opted out by the next general election; the role of local education authorities has not yet withered away; she would have to unhook herself some time from Mr Patten's targets.

There has been no explicit announcement that Ministers are no longer pinning their hopes on l,500 or 3,500 or 4,500 GM schools next year, some time or never. But just a few weeks ago at a GM schools meeting the Education Secretary was setting out a scenario in which those schools that had opted out coexisted with their local education authority neighbours and acted as a valuable spur.

Just as important, she stopped some of the more explicit bribes. Now that the technology schools project is to be extended, and widened to include specialist language schools, the money on offer will no longer be restricted to GM and voluntary-aided schools - always the most indefensible of the Patten ploys. GM schools will also be bearing their share of revenue and capital grant economies. And just as she moves towards peace and light and coexistence, the Labour leader, Tony Blair, sets foot on the same path and flings his party into the fiercest educational turmoil it has been through for 20 years.

The political context for Mr Blair was the eminently defensible line that you cannot simply hand GM schools back to the local authorities they hated or distrusted without looking for ways to preserve their independence, within restraints to guard the greater good. His personal context was that he wished to send his son to a grant-maintained, Catholic comprehensive school with a reputation for not-very-covert selection. His education spokesman, David Blunkett, could obviously handle the first of these propositions rather more easily than the second, but large and vocal sections of their party were not prepared to entertain either.

Passionate debate about the purity of the neighbourhood comprehensive ideal has taken on an air of unreality brought into sharp focus by the next revelation about the schooling of another Labour scion, this time the son of the new schools spokesman Peter Kilfoyle. The shock-horror story to hit the media and the crowing classes was that Kilfoyle junior was at the very same Blue Coat boys' school in Liverpool which the Department for Education had just fingered for - wait for it - covert selection. Either change your entry procedures or your character, was the message. Right, said the governors, we will become a grammar school. Mr Kilfoyle seemed to be in an even more embarrassing position than his leader, though a cheerful bruiser who can take on and beat Militant can presumably cope with this local difficulty too.

In fact Peter Kilfoyle, who like Mrs Blair is a good Catholic, had intended to send the son in question to St Francis Xavier, where he and his wife were governors. But that school had voted to opt out, in the face of his own opposition, and he therefore took the sensible course of sending him to the best available alternative, which also performs extremely well in the league tables. In the circumstances it seems like political correctness gone mad to suggest that he should have sought out somewhere worse.

This, however, is the dilemma into which the Labour party is now driving itself. The truth is that the real neighbourhood comprehensive has seldom existed, except in country areas where there is no alternative, and is even becoming an illusion in the United States where it began. In New York it has been superseded by a hierarchy of specialist and magnet schools where covert or overt selection is the norm and the neighbourhood school is at the bottom of the heap. The further down the road we go towards specialist schools and the sort of parental choice and diversity to which the new Labour party is also now turning, the more the neighbourhood concept is blurred or under threat. In any case, the church schools have always crossed local boundaries with their catchment areas, covert selection takes many forms, and some parents will always know the ropes better than others.

All this gives much force to the arguments of those within the Labour party who insist that it is the duty of opinion formers and local leaders to take a personal stake in the local comprehensive by sending their own children - and making sure that it is good enough for everyone's. There are plenty of shining examples where this has worked, including that of David Blunkett in Sheffield, but it can be tough and time-consuming, and not every parent wants to use a child as a battering ram.

Tony Blair and Peter Kilfoyle are sending out a signal to middle-class parents that they understand their aspirations. Once the Labour party is in power it will reform the local framework, and grant-maintained status as such will disappear, along with its privileges, but excellence for all will be the aim. Or so the scenario might go.

David Blunkett, like his leader, is very well aware that the party's education policy has to get a step or two ahead of the Conservatives if it is to impress, rather than simply react from behind to the Government agenda. But he needs to be able to concentrate on his own ideas about school improvement and effectiveness, rather than his colleagues' school choices, or he will find that Gillian Shephard has got there first too.

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