Bill backers occupy the centre ground

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
Were we right to ignore the Education and Inspections Bill? Its passage at third reading, with a majority of 422 votes to 98, was marked not with a bang but a whimper. A Bill described by the Prime Minister as "pivotal" did not even make the front page of The TES. The teaching profession are just as unmoved. At a recent seminar of educationists, at which I spoke on the Bill, nearly all were ignorant of its contents.

Inasmuch as the Bill will mean almost no change to the day-to-day life of secondary education, indifference was the right reaction. Its two key themes were greater management freedoms for trust schools and the possibility that new schools would be set up and run by charitable organisations other than the established churches. Both themes were trumpeted by the Government, yet both are red herrings. Trust schools are exactly the same in character as the existing 900 foundation schools, which are in turn extremely similar to local authority-maintained "community" schools. All are subject to the same regulations over curriculum, admissions and pay and conditions as any other state school. Equally, the rules on school organisation have undergone only cosmetic change. I predict that only one or two competitions to establish new schools in this Parliament will be won by charities rather than local education authorities.

But there is more to it than this. It was the focus of two political changes which give a clear sense of where the education debate will go over the next five years.

The first is the alliance between Blairites in government and Cameroons - supporters of David Cameron - in opposition. The Bill was only passed with Conservative support, based on the principles of school autonomy and greater diversity of school providers. In his foreword to the education white paper last year, Tony Blair said that parental choice "can be a powerful driver of improved standards". He said good schools' success is based in their "ethos, their sense of purpose, the strength of their leaders, teachers and support staff and the motivation of their parents and their pupils". The Conservative wanted to stand with the Prime Minister on this territory, the new centre ground of education politics, where both parties desperately want to be and where they will be at least for the rest of this Parliament and the next.

The second is the marginalisation of the most reactionary voices, such as those MPs who signed the "alternative white paper". While the Government made some negligible concessions to them, they have made themselves look out of time, basing their campaign around rhetoric and policies from circa 1965. The centre ground of politics is now completely disinterested in the comprehensivegrammar school debate. It is interested in practical steps towards school improvement which go with more vocal parental demand, and the straightforward need to educate more children than ever before to a higher standard than ever, if they are to prosper in an increasingly competitive economy. It matters enormously that the opponents of change lost the final vote by four to one: it was their last hurrah and an ignominious defeat.

There is a parallel with the row over foundation hospitals in the last Parliament. The Government invested a huge amount of capital in legislating for a new kind of hospital that was, in truth, barely different to existing ones. But the principle - that the health service should be made up of independent, confident institutions rather than a heavy national lump - was won. It has since underpinned a major series of reforms which may, if seen to their conclusion, see a transformation in the quality and efficiency of the service.

What does this mean for teachers? At an individual level, a more satisfying professional life because politics is moving away from central interference. As a profession, a demand for more intelligent leadership from trade unions who will exercise more influence by standing on the new centre ground of politics rather than fighting against it.

Andrew Haldenby is director of the centre-right think-tank Reform (

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