A lasting safety from upheaval

11th May 2007 at 01:00
Blair kept his promise to put education first. It is unlikely the Conservatives will dismantle his reforms.

A decade ago Tony Blair promised to put education first, and he has kept his word. A department of state that was once seen as a staging post en route to better things has leapt up the Cabinet pecking order. This is the place where prime ministers in waiting (David Miliband) and potential deputy leaders (Alan Johnson) make their name.

Blair's strategy has paid political dividends. A recent Ipsos MORI poll showed that more voters believe education will improve over the next five years than is the case for the NHS, transport, policing or the environment.

Money has helped. Funding per pupil has doubled and the Government has already spent a staggering pound;6.5 billion as it rebuilds every secondary school. But Blair wants to be remembered for transforming lives, not buildings, and here the picture is more complicated.

A new emphasis on literacy and numeracy in primary schools has boosted test results and galvanised teachers. The prize is real improvement; the price teaching to the test and bored teachers and pupils.

He has found it harder to cope with the challenge posed by secondary schools. Results have crept up, but not enough. His failure to back A-level reforms just before the last election was politically understandable but educationally inexcusable. New work-related diplomas are a belated attempt to address the most pressing issue - the boredom of the least able teenagers with a curriculum that is ill-suited to their needs. Meddlesome initiatives and bureaucracy distract heads.

Despite an ever-increasing variety of secondary schools, choice, the Conservative watchword adopted by Blair, has proved elusive. Parents still fight over popular schools and it is the middle classes who work the system. His promise of a good education for all and not just an elite is unfulfilled. Academies, his favourite scheme to reform the sector, may help, but it is too soon to say.

The role of poverty, originally played down in Blair's view of educational achievement, is only just being acknowledged. The gap between the most and least successful children is as wide as ever. Those at the bottom of the heap, such as children in care, are doing no better than they were in 1997.

Yet he has made a lasting difference. Private investment in schools will stay. Gordon Brown and the Conservatives have signed up to academies.

A return to the 11-plus is off the agenda. David Cameron is the first Tory leader to refuse to promote grammar schools.

The Conservatives may loosen central government's grip on schools but targets and league tables will continue.

Blair's legacy is a consensus that will preserve schools from damaging structural upheavals. His successors will also find it hard to gainsay the belief of the first prime minister to send his children to state schools that state education really matters.

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