Are you, or have you ever been, a conservative?;Interview

29th October 1999 at 01:00
Tony Blair is determined to beat the "forces of conservatism" he believes are ranged against New Labour's education policies. Chris Bunting talks to some likely suspects

WHO are these forces of conservatism? Last week the Prime Minister renewed his attack on the shady elements who, he believes, have been working to thwart New Labour's five-year plan for change in the classroom - and elsewhere in the public sector.

He told a London conference of new headteachers that "we must take on what I call the 'culture of excuses' which still infects some parts of the teaching profession". This is a culture that tolerates low ambitions, rejects excellence and treates poverty as an excuse for failure.

True, he said, the vast majority of teachers do a fantastic job. "But in all reform and change you meet 'small c' conservatives, left and right, who are suspicious of change and who resist change."

The TES requested further details of these people and their activities, but this was denied. No names would be named, said Number 10. So, puzzling hard, we asked a number of education leaders if they were enemies of progress.

NICK SEATON from the ultra-traditionalist Campaign for Real Education which shares Mr Blair's taste for old fashioned teaching methods, said: "Yes, I probably am a force for conservativism. Since the Campaign for Real Education was set up we have been extremely hostile to the forces of progressivism. Proceeding as he is with the state education system, I am not surprised that Tony Blair is worried about conservatism. He is setting about destroying the remaining grammar schools while the recent review of the national curriculum instead of concentrating on the traditional subjects, is introducing things like citizenship, personal, social and health education, which is all a distraction to the teacher."

DAVE HILL, lecturer in the sociology and politics of education at University College Northampton, and member of the radical-left Hillcole group, said: "It's Tony Blair who's conservative, not me. New Labour has introduced a few progressive things, but basically it has not only continued the Thatcherite agenda but extended it.

"In its four policies of privatisation, of performance-related pay, of relying on the grossly socially divisive selective market in schooling and in the overall low level of public expenditure on education, New Labour education policy is dominated by neo-liberalism.

"If we had a decent socialist Labour government in power we would have a massive programme of comprehensivisation, take away charitable status from private schools, give all parents the right to put their children into a local school and pay increases to all teachers."

GRAHAM

LANE education chair of the Local Government Association and representative of councils across Britain, said: "I am certainly not a conservative. I am signed up 100 per cent to the radical agenda. I believe every student could be achieving far more than they are now.

"Tony has got to realise that there are lots of people in local government who have the same agenda. We are not in hock to the teacher unions or to special interests. He has got conservatives around him who think structures and processes are important, rather than seeing what works. The civil service and the education department are full of conservatives."

DOUG McAVOY, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, which is leading the opposition to performance-related pay, said: "If being a conservative means protecting pupils from change that is not researched, change that has been tried and found to be failing, then I plead guilty. I am proud to lead a group of professionals who will campaign to protect their pupils.

"Perhaps the Prime Minister's belief that he can tell whether a school is a good school on meeting the head was an idle boast. But, if the Government's policies are based on similar hunches, then I am proud to protect children from them."

HARVEY GOLDSTEIN, professor at London University's Institute of Education, former education adviser to Jack Straw and a leading critic of academic league tables, said: "I have no idea whether I am a 'force of conservatism'. It is a silly thing to say and I don't want to label myself either way. I am sure he thinks people who don't agree with him are 'forces of conservatism'."

THERESA MAY, shadow education minister, who has recently adopted a teacher-friendly strategy, said: "What he's saying about the teachers and their reluctance to change shows just hows how little he understands what's been going on in education in recent years.

"If you use Blair's definition, which is any group that doesn't agree with him, then of course I am against that. But the forces of true Conservatism are of great benefit to this country. It's arrogant to suggest that anyone not in favour of your ideas is wrong."

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