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How Labour could do it better

I've often thought that a Labour government, given a chance to re-run a period of its history, should tackle the years between the Ministry of Education's issue of Circular 1066 and the Department of Education and Science's Direct Grant (cessation of grant) Regulations 1975.

In other words, the nine years from 1966 which gave Britain non-selective secondary education. The idea would be to do it again and to do it better.

I have the thought in mind as David Blunkett, Labour's new education spokesman, picks up the pieces from the Blair fallout and tries to give coherence to Labour policy. In switching the New Year focus to the idea of a local democratic framework for schools, which could involve grant-maintained and independent institutions, he is opening the door to some unaccustomed strategic thinking.

Or so one can hope. For, knowing what one knows now, it would be an error simply to repeat an approach in the style of the circular of Tony Crosland, the minister of education in 1966. Though Mr Crosland rightly goes down in history as giving governmental form to the decision to move the country on from a pattern of grammar schools and secondary moderns, which had their roots in the 19th-century elementary tradition, the over-riding aim was to negotiate solutions acceptable to local opinion and to teachers - rather than, as on the continent, giving grammar and modern schools each their own role within a two-tier system.

Thus Mr Crosland's "request" to LEAs to submit plans for the maintained sector and the circular's suggestion that they talk to the direct grant schools to see if they could be "encouraged" to join in, led inevitably to a fragmented pattern. Far from getting new blood into the state system, the maintained sector was weakened by losing large numbers of its grammar schools.

The most spectacular (but, in the circumstances, inevitable) admission of failure was the 1974 Labour government's decision to end public funding of the direct-grant schools - those grammar schools which bridged the maintained and independent sector, fee-paying for at least half their pupils but part-financed by the state (by "direct grant") for the proportion of the remainder who came from maintained schools. Since schools like Manchester Grammar, the King Edward's Schools in Birmingham and Putney High School for Girls could not be integrated, they were isolated. They went independent.

Twenty years on, Britain can no longer afford an approach which gives so little weight to criteria other than choice and diversity. When education is treated primarily as a private good it gives riseto a hierarchy of esteem: independent sector, grant-maintained sector, a newly reconstituted grammar sector.

Too often, the state sector, the sector which - as the National Commission on Education put it - carries the main burden of interpreting and passing on the values of society and stimulating pupils to think for themselves, is the non-choice, despite its numerical superiority and, in most cases, its quality.

One single figure makes the point. It comes from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's educational indicators.

In Britain, there is a difference of 63 per cent between the highest and lowest results obtained by 13-year-olds in maths and science. Most countries in western Europe meet common targets more or less successfully, with a dispersion of results below 20 per cent. In France and Italy it is below 10 per cent of the same achievement level. Britain's elite does as well as any other. Britain, however, has a huge tail of pupils who perform badly. It is a shaming pattern, reminiscent of the Third World and astonishing in a society where education absorbs so much of the country's resources and employs so much skilled manpower.

However, the issues that currently worry governments in all the European UnionOECD countries could help to focus British thinking in a way which would give much more weight to the public interest.

As recent OECD publications point out (notably OECD and Education 1960-1990 edited by George Papadopolous, and the OECD examination of the French education system, both 1994), governments in EUOECD countries are concerned by the same three questions: how to avoid a minority being excluded by under-achievement; how to ensure quality and consistency in an education system characterised by increasing diversity; and how to provide a better fit between education and employment.

One answer is that governments should be concentrating on steering through general objectives rather than trying to apply direct control.

There is ground here for Mr Blunkett to hoe which makes the point that the nation's education system for the 21st century has to be one which retains the confidence of the population at large and heightens general aspirations.

If he prefers a seafaring metaphor, he could pick up a phrase of John le Carre's: "History does not light the way forward but, like a stern lamp on a ship, illuminates its wake."

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