A pragmatic ideology;Platform;Opinion

12th June 1998 at 01:00
Tony Blair wants to forge a new path between socialism and the free market. What might this mean for education? Margaret Hodge MP begins a series on the search for a Third Way.

WE ARE ALL busy defining the Third Way. For some, the term is menacing, given its associations with the fascist movements of the 1920s and 1930s. For others it is simply the latest spin-doctor soundbite, a term conjured up to intrigue the pundits for a period, like communitarianism or the stakeholder society - simply the fashion of the moment.

But for me it provides an opportunity to reflect on the changes in thinking on the Left and specifically how they impact on Labour's approach to education.

The Third Way is about modernising institutions and policies, freed from the structures of two opposing traditions, the Old Left and the New Right. So it is about change and it is about discarding old notions.

For instance, the traditional class analysis that distinguished Left and Right is less relevant to us today in a global, multi-cultural and fast-changing society. Similarly, the traditional divide between those on the Right, who despise public services and believe in the supremacy of the free market, and those on the Left who demonise private enterprise and espouse the cause of state socialism, is no longer helpful. Both ideologies have failed.

If we discard these old theories, what can now underpin our approach to achieve our enduring aim of opportunity for the many, not the few, and what does this all mean for the child or the teacher, the classroom or the school?

I would pick four key strands in the new thinking. First, pragmatism has replaced ideology. It is what works that counts. Who provides it and how it is provided is less important. Second, the focus is on outcomes, not inputs; on the consumercitizen, not the producer. Third, the new thinking is about breaking down divisions between public and private, recognising the strengths of both and developing new partnerships that capture the best of each sector. Fourth, the Third Way emphasises a balance between rights and responsibilities, both for the individual and for the community.

We can start to see the impact of this new framework on the Government's education programme. Previous Labour governments concentrated on school structures rather than educational outcomes. They believed that equality was achieved by state control through local education authorities of the allocation of school places within a comprehensive system. This government has chosen not to prioritise structures. It is not forcing the abolition of grammar schools and it is not returning absolute powers to allocate school places to LEAs.

Indeed, the idea that we could turn the clock back on the concept of parental choice - however unreal that choice might be when a school is over-subscribed - is a nonsense. So we have to ensure greater choice, equality and opportunity by raising the standards in all our schools, whatever their status. Failure by schools will not be tolerated and children's backgrounds will not be accepted as an excuse for low-achievement levels.

But unlike the Tories, who put most money into the high-achieving schools and the high-achieving pupils, this Government is providing funding for schools and pupils in most need. Hence, for instance, we have the education action zones, the abolition of the Assisted Places Scheme with the money being re-allocated to reduce class sizes in key stage 1 and the massive investment in early education and childcare.

The emphasis on outcomes creates new and difficult challenges for teachers. Assessing outcomes involves opening schools to greater public account. That means more and better performance monitoring with value-added tables on pupils' achievement, school targets and an emphasis on monitoring and inspection by both LEAs and Ofsted. It also means teachers have to be held to account for their performance, with good performance celebrated and rewarded and poor performers ultimately removed from teaching.

With the emphasis on rights and responsibilities, this also creates new challenges for parents. The social exclusion unit's report on truancy and exclusion heralds a new approach, with greater sanctions on parents when their children truant. Equally, the development of homework policies and home-school contracts also spell out the child and the parents' responsibilities in a more explicit way.

The development of the Third Way is perhaps best seen in the development of education action zones. Schools in these zones will not be constrained by the rules of the national curriculum, the politics of the local authority or national pay and conditions. Those working in the zones will be able to experiment more freely to determine what helps to raise standards.

New partnerships between the public and the private sector will be encouraged. If the private sector can run school buildings more efficiently, or human resources functions better and more cheaply, why should it not be brought in to help? If its activity releases extra monies for books and teachers, is that not a good thing? A pragmatic approach to achieve the ideological purpose of opportunity for the many reflects the Third Way.

The Third Way does not mean abandoning our principles. Education is our top priority. We still see education as crucial to creating opportunity and ensuring social justice.

oBut the way in which we achieve our aims have to change. Schools that were closed to public account; a focus that emphasises only resources and not outcomes; policies built on a view that state control over admissions and a comprehensive structure would assure equality; a reluctance to question the professional - none of these policies achieved our shared aim. We have to try new ways. The Third Way is an attempt to do just this. Only time will tell whether it does indeed work.

Margaret Hodge is Labour MP for Barking and Dagenham and chairs the Commons education and employment select committee.

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