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A defining moment for New Labour

What happens when there is a clash between two of the Government's sacred principles - high standards and financial realism? Mike Berrill (left) has a case in point.

The final sentence in The TES leader of January 2 was exactly right. New Labour is committed to raising standards in schools without raising taxes and no other principle, predilection or sectional interest will be allowed to get in the way during 1998.

But this new get-tough, "social justice with political realism" approach doesn't necessarily help in resolving the dilemmas that arise daily - in education especially when you recognise that there are two principles enshrined in the New Labour attitude, not just one.

What will they do where issues relating to both "standards" and "financial realism" arise but where the two principles conflict with equal voice? Take for instance a dilemma of the first magnitude for New Labour which will come its way in a few months' time when the Conservative county council in Bedfordshire tries to close Biddenham upper school.

The county council's problem and its proposed solution are clear. An Audit Commission report has identified around 10,000 surplus school places in the county. The council also needs to build new schools in mid-Bedfordshire where pupil numbers are growing rapidly, but the Department for Education and Employment will not sanction capital expenditure until the problem of surplus places is solved. The council has decided that closure will bring the most rapid and effective solution and has committed itself to using Audit Commission guidelines on the minimum recommended sizes of schools as the main criterion.

Bedfordshire runs a three-tier lower, middle and upper school system and has chosen to begin the closures with the 13 to 19 upper schools. From the beginning in north Bedfordshire, the finger has pointed at Biddenham upper school. It suffered dramatic falling rolls three years ago (down from 850 pupils to a current 558) and though there has been an upturn this academic year which sets the school on course for a full recovery, it is still more than 100 pupils below the Audit Commission's recommended minimum of 700 pupils.

County council projections suggest that all the upper-school pupils in the north of the county can be accommodated (at a pinch) in the four remaining local authority schools and the two out-of-town grant-maintained schools.

In the no-nonsense, get-tough 1990s this looks like an open-and-shut case - sacrifice Biddenham for greater educational efficiency and the greater good of the others. Indeed a county council officer has said that "any reasonable person would come to the same conclusion", and despite the change in government, "all the signals coming from the DFEE recommend pursuing the radical option". One up for sensible hard-nosed financial realism.

But Biddenham upper is no ordinary school. It is 60 per cent ethnic minority and serves one of the poorest areas in the county (indeed ethnicity and poverty are probably the two most significant factors in its falling rolls over the past three years especially when allied to the unfettered growth of out-of-town GM schools).

Despite this, the school is a flagship of successful multicultural education and combines high levels of racial harmony with outstanding levels of pupil achievement. It came third out of 14 local authority schools in A-level scores (average point score per pupil entry) and seventh in GCSE scores (5 or more A*-C).

Above all, it was the top school in the county by a clear margin for "value added". In the Observer's "value-added" table it came 151st out of 3,000 state schools and in the top 5 per cent. The statistic used was based on free school meals but if other associated factors had been taken into account, the school would certainly have come in the top 100 state schools for educational effectiveness.

In short, Biddenham is an outstanding multicultural school and, but for its recent dip in pupil numbers, one which the Labour party would be celebrating and championing. One up for high standards against the odds.

How does the Labour administration begin to sort this one out (and sort it out it must, since the Conservative-run council is determined to close the school and the school is determined to appeal to the Secretary of State)? Will David Blunkett sanction the closure of one of the most effective schools in the country in order to reduce surplus places?

In these circumstances where financial and school-effectiveness considerations are so evenly balanced, David Blunkett will need recourse to other New Labour principles to make his decision. Here, the fact that Biddenham is an engine of multiculturalism and a flagship community comprehensive serving one of the most deprived catchments in the county will, in my view, tip the balance and save the school. Given the Government's commitment to a multiracial society and to social inclusion, it is difficult to see how David Blunkett could do otherwise. A victory for educational achievement, multiculturalism and social justice.

But it is here that I have to register an interest and a nagging doubt. As Biddenham's new headteacher of four months, I am totally committed to saving this unique school but I have to confess that I do not understand why the DFEE should be putting out strong messages to the county council to pursue closure irrespective of the quality and nature of the schools affected. Given the stated principles of its new political masters and their commitment to "education, education, education", why are the DFEE not putting out equally strong messages that solutions which involve closing outstanding schools will be unacceptable, since this would be cutting off your standards nose to spite your financial face?

Only time will tell if this analysis is correct and we are justified in keeping faith with David Blunkett and New Labour principles or whether this is just so much political naivety.

I hope for the sake of a renewed faith in principled politics that I am right. Though we clearly spend millions of pounds each year on the education system and this needs close regulation, education is primarily a moral enterprise. It is only by losing sight of this that you could contemplate closing an outstanding "value-added" school and, in this instance, betraying the vision of a socially just, multicultural society.

It would certainly be a betrayal of everything that brought me into education 20 years ago.

In any event the outcome will show whether the principled or the pragmatic tendency within the Labour party has gained ascendancy and whether, in this particular dilemma, a radical but indiscriminate approach to cost-cutting and financial ground-clearing is more important than a commitment to standards and to supporting high quality multicultural education.

Mike Berrill is executive editor of the journal Professional Development Today, co-ordinator of the SCITT National Network and the headteacher of Biddenham upper school.

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