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The irony of laying Thatcherism's final coping stone

John Maynard Keynes summed up Stanley Baldwin's Conservative election manifesto of 1929 as: "We will not promise more than we can perform." Therefore, we will promise nothing at all. It would be altogether too mischievous to suggest that this aphorism could also be applied to Labour's manifesto of 1997, but the party has been remarkably careful to promise hardly anything that requires increased public expenditure.

It is, of course, easier now for a government to control expenditure on education than it was in the immediate post-war period when education was still a national service locally administered. In those halcyon days, local education authorities could spend as much as they could persuade their electors to support, while controls over the global total of local expenditure were comparatively benign.

Civil servants at the then Ministry of Education, therefore, found themselves, in the words of former TES editor Stuart Maclure, "the last practising exponents of the late Lord Lugard's colonial principle of indirect rule". They suffered, as Lugard did, from "powerlessness and lack of executive authority".

In 1974, however, Anthony Crosland told LEAs that "the party's over" and, since then, we have moved inexorably to a more centralised system of financing education. By the time Margaret Thatcher left office, authorities had been told that central government knew better than they did how much they should raise from ratepayers and how much they should spend. That was the justification both for rate-capping and the panoply of expenditure controls.

The Conservatives claimed during the twilight period of Thatcherism that, far from centralising power, they were in fact devolving it to individual institutions. Kenneth Baker, the monkey to Thatcher's organ-grinder, told the House of Commons in 1988 that his Education Reform Bill was "about devolution of authority and responsibility, not about enhancing central control". The reality, however, was that common funding formulas, academic league tables, the national curriculum and rate-capping were establishing a new and highly centralised structure of educational administration.

The justification for this new structure was not primarily financial but educational. Ever since James Callaghan's Ruskin College speech of 1976, the education service had been charged, by Left and Right, with having failed the nation. Yet politicians found themselves unable to get a sufficient grip on the system to reform it.

So they sought, through measures such as the curriculum and league tables, to establish stronger control over what is, after all, a national service. The growth of a more centralised system of educational expenditure, therefore, serves but to underpin the new constitutional relationship which the reforms have brought about.

Yet Conservatives were never entirely happy with this new dispensation. In her memoirs, Thatcher refers to "unintended" centralisation in higher education and then argues that selection by ability imposed by the centre was a principle "far more consonant with socialism and collectivism than with the spontaneous social order associated with liberalism and conservatism. State selection by ability is, after all, a form of manpower planning".

"The blind, unplanned, unco-ordinated wisdom of the market", Thatcher's mentor, Sir Keith Joseph, had declared in 1976, "is overwhelmingly superior to the well-researched, rational, systematic, well-meaning, co-operative, science-based, forward-looking, statistically respectable plans of government". But, far from creating a market-driven system of education, Thatcher established a nationalised education service underpinned by a centralised system of finance. She was fulfilling the legacy not of Adam Smith, but of Clement Attlee.

Will New Labour alter this dispensation? In opposition, it championed the rights of local authorities and urged decentralisation, but a return to local administration of education is highly unlikely.

In its search for higher school standards, Labour is just as distrustful of LEAs as the Conservatives were. Can Labour LEAs be trusted not to thwart the campaign against failing schools and inadequate teachers? Can Conservative LEAs be trusted not to reintroduce selection? It is in large part our adversarial political system, adversarial both as between the parties and adversarial as between central and local government, that dissuades governments from offloading powers on to local authorities as has occurred on the Continent.

Moreover, New Labour remains committed to a fundamental principle of social democracy, the notion of territorial justice. This entails that a child in Liverpool has roughly the same amount spent on his or her schooling as a child in Surrey, regardless of differences in the resources or the political direction of their respective local authorities. Only central government can ensure territorial justice, and this is bound to constrain decentralisation.

The new Government, then, is likely to preserve a centralised education system. Given that Labour will not contemplate higher rates of personal taxation, it is difficult to see how more money can be found for education. Committed, for at least the next two years, to the macro-economic limits set by the Conservatives, there seems little scope for any real improvement.

There is, perhaps, only one way to raise more money for education. Parents want better education just as they want better cars. While they are prepared to pay for a better car, they are not prepared to pay through taxation for better education.

Perhaps parents would be prepared to contribute in other ways. A market-driven system of education, based on vouchers and top-up fees, might be the only practicable method by which extra funds can be secured. By a historical irony, it was left to Thatcher to complete Attlee's agenda. It would be an even greater irony if it were to be left to New Labour to put the final coping stone on Thatcherism by embracing vouchers in education.

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