The Prime Minister has made education his top policy priority. He has made more speeches about education than any of his predecessors; he has shown a recognition of the aspirations and potential of ordinary people for high quality education service. Why, then, have his educational announcements brought so much criticism? An analysis of his speech to the heads of grant-maintained schools on September 14 explains much of this contradiction.
The core of the speech concerned grant-maintained schools, to which he accorded the new title of independent state schools, the third name for this sector in as many years.
Mr Major reiterated his ambition for all schools to become GM. There are at least three reasons why this will not happen, even with the six proposals which he outlined in his speech.
First, there are no longer substantial financial incentives for LEA-maintained schools to go GM.
Second, the general election is less than two years away and schools will not want to embark on a year of potentially divisive debate about GM status, knowing that further change will follow if the Conservatives lose the election.
Third, and most significantly, LEA schools now have a great deal of financial and management freedom, LEAs have changed considerably since the GM movement began, but the Prime Minister's advisers do not seem to be in touch with the role of the modern LEA.
An efficient and effective system of state schools has at least three features which cannot be provided by central government or by the schools themselves. Admission arrangements, the provision of school buildings and adequate external support must be carried out at an intermediate level.
The most worrying aspect of the Prime Minister's speech, therefore, is the proposal that GM schools should have much greater freedom over admissions. Taken together with Mr Major's ambition that all state schools should become GM, we would have 25,000 separate admissions arrangements. This is a recipe for chaos.
The Prime Minister offered GM schools "a substantial expansion of your freedom to make sensible choices between pupils in the way you think best". So it is the schools which are to choose the pupils and no longer can the government pretend that parents choose schools. He implicitly criticised some of the admissions decisions of the Department for Education and Employment and, in particular, encouraged schools to apply for single-sex status. Who would vote for this? Only the girls' parents? Only the boys' parents? And what about the parents of the other school(s) in the town, whose admissions arrangements would be profoundly affected?
On admissions, the Prime Minister has simply not thought through the consequences of what he is saying. Once again, he seems to have been the victim of poor advice, which comes not from his responsible government department, but from the policy units which translate political philosophy into education ideas, without touching reality in between. The state education system, which must support the education of all young people, cannot be treated as an experiment in market economics. The message should by now be clear: in maintained education, the market does not work. Nowhere is this clearer than in the administration of admissions arrangements to schools.
On funding, the speech was not at all specific, but his welcome words advocating a "fair, simple and clear" national funding formula could have come from A Better Cake, the 1994 proposals of the Secondary Heads Association, which were widely welcomed as a sensible recipe for the funding of all schools, not only the GM sector to which Mr Major was presumably referring.
In his speech, John Major targeted Church schools, even hinting that parental ballots may not be a necessary precondition for GM status. During the past year, the Church and its schools' governing bodies have shown no less reluctance than other schools to become GM and it is hard to see why this situation should change now.
The Rainbow Pack (procedures for GM schools) is to be reduced and, while we all welcome a reduction in bureaucracy, this is unlikely to prove a strong incentive for opting out. It may also reduce the accountability of GM schools to a dangerously low level.
The ability to borrow money on the commercial market is another marginal incentive, unlikely to be undertaken by any but the most entrepreneurial governing body.
The ability to retain the full proceeds of land sale, on the other hand, will be a popular measure in some schools (though not, ironically, in church schools) and could be extended to LEA-maintained schools.
These six measures do not represent a sufficiently attractive programme to overcome the three reasons outlined above why the GM programme has stalled. If the Prime Minister wants education to be his big success story for the next general election, then he has chosen the wrong policy to place at the top of his agenda.
The Prime Minister touched on other topics too. He frequently mentioned assessment, on which he showed the same instinctive weakness as he has been revealing since November 1990 when, in his first big speech on education since becoming Prime Minister, he imposed an arbitrary 20 per cent ceiling on coursework in GCSE and A-level examinations.
In his speech, Mr Major equated high quality vocational courses with more rigorous testing and external marking. He stated that the "single most important of fixed points for our children is the integrity of our public exams" (whatever that means). He advocated baseline testing for four-year-olds, in apparent contradiction to Sir Ron Dearing's statement the previous day. He implied that national tests and the Office for Standards in Education inspections are the key elements in raising educational standards.
There follow five paragraphs on OFSTED inspections which deserve the closest attention and analysis, for they appear to set out a number of new directions for OFSTED. These include the inspection of the teaching of reading in three boroughs with low examination results (an interpretation which caused some surprise in the LEAs themselves, which were happily co-operating with the OFSTED survey), "less bureaucratic and burdensome" school inspections, more intelligible inspection reports, and reports to heads on the performance of individual teachers. Only the previous week, Mr Major had still been referring to "headmasters", so we should acknowledge that some progress has been made but, in noting this small point, we should not lose the significance of changes in OFSTED procedures being announced by the Prime Minister, and not by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector.
HMI has a proud history of 156 years of independence from central government. The creation of OFSTED, outside the Department for Education, should have made this independence easier to preserve than HMI sometimes found it from within the Department. Senior chief inspectors from the mid-19th century to Eric Bolton will testify to the difficulty of their situation. It is to be hoped that Mr Major's announcements do not signify a loss of independence of HMI and OFSTED.
The Prime Minister will have the support of teachers and parents in addressing their concerns on discipline and the way in which the balance has shifted in recent years against the schools and in favour of the obstreperous pupil and the litigious parent.
The Prime Minister and Mrs Shephard are known to be close political colleagues and it is difficult to see how they now seem to be pursuing different educational agendas. The only explanation and it is one which has seemed possible throughout the last five years - is that Mr Major is unduly influenced by advisers in policy units and think tanks who have no contact with the DFEE civil servants or with those who have any practical experience of education.
There can be no doubting the Prime Minister's sincerity in wishing to raise educational achievement in the country, but the proposals outlined in his speech - and particularly the proposals concerning GM schools - will not raise achievement by a single percentage point. Indeed, his proposal for total freedom in admissions arrangement for GM schools, which will help the few but harm the many, will have the opposite effect on the majority of state schools.
If the clear blue water which some Conservatives wish to put between the Government and Opposition parties is in fact between the Prime Minister and one of his most effective Cabinet Ministers, it is profoundly to be hoped that it is he who crosses it first. Then, perhaps, the contradictions between his aspirations and his announcements on education will begin to disappear. John Dunford is president of the Secondary Heads Association and head of Durham Johnston Comprehensive School.