Blair must play the benevolent headmaster

30th May 1997 at 01:00
Amid the euphoria of so many in the education world at the election of the first Labour Government for 18 years, few have stopped to ask what Labour actually stands for - or whether indeed there is likely to be a coherent Labour policy towards education at all.

There are, in fact, two Labour parties as far as education is concerned. The first, associated with David Blunkett and Lady Blackstone, takes its stand on the old Labour agenda, according to which the reduction of class sizes and abolition of the Assisted Places Scheme are crucial.

The second, associated with Tony Blair and new Labour, sees as its central problem the need to come to terms with the "Great Disruption" of the 1960s, the most revolutionary decade of the century.

The "Great Disruption" is Francis Fukuyama's term for the massive cultural change that replaced a cohesive social order with a radical and unbridled individualism whose emphasis was on rights rather than obligations.

In a recent lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies, journalist Melanie Phillips referred to this development as "the corruption of liberalism", the fruition of the Enlightenment philosophy according to which men and women could remake the world for themselves.

The American social commentator, Christopher Lasch, has called this corrupted liberalism "an unremitting onslaught against bourgeois culture which was far more lasting in its effects, in the West at least and now probably in the East as well, than the attack on capitalism".

That is the very philosophy that old Labour inherited, a philosophy that Ms Phillips has christened "the culture of dutiless rights". And, as she points out, the philosophy of unconstrained individual choice in the area of moral behaviour bears distressing similarities to the view of the new right that there should be unconstrained individual choice in the economic market.

Both philosophies ignore the social context within which our choices have meaning. Neither recognises any sense of the common good, any notion of the ties that bind society together, other than the force of individual self-interest.

It cannot be accidental that Japan, whose Confucianism preserved it from the great disruption of the 1960s, is also the nation to have been most successful in retaining a successful market economy based on trust, and a successful educational system based on respect for learning.

Most of those in the educational establishment believe that their problems flow from lack of cash or resources. That, it seems, was also what the Labour party believed.

Yet having for so much of their time in opposition berated the Tories for starving the system of funds, new Labour now claims that the central problems of education do not flow from lack of resources.

New Labour asserts that the problems of education are cultural, and not economic, in origin. It bases this claim on research that shows that the roots of educational under-achievement lie very deep.

Research in both the US and Britain shows fairly conclusively that per capita spending on schools is a far less important factor in educational achievement than the effects of parents and peer groups. Indeed, in the US, hardly any factors seem to correlate with educational achievement except for the influence of family and neighbours.

Moreover, the existence of a cohesive family background seems to depend far less on economic resources than was once thought. Indeed, far from poverty causing family breakdown, it seems instead that family breakdown is a common cause of poverty.

The most successful Labour Government that Britain has ever seen was that elected in 1945 and led by Clement Attlee. This administration offered new social rights and an increase in expenditure on education and the social services.

Yet Attlee worked within a framework of society and the family, within which obligations were taken for granted. Such a framework had, of course, been strengthened by wartime experience where acceptance of obligations to one's fellow men and women was an essential part of the common effort.

Attlee, then, far from being Santa Claus was a benevolent headmaster making sure that his pupils had decent uniform and a nourishing school lunch. In return, the pupils were expected to obey the rules and woe betide them if they did not. Social democracy only makes sense within a framework of this sort, one in which obligations go together with rights.

The experience of Germany, where more is paid in welfare benefit than in the US, shows that generous welfare provision is perfectly compatible with family cohesion.

The trouble is, however, that the welfare state, in the form in which we now have it, is essentially Attlee's welfare state, but without the framework of obligation that once sustained it. It is a welfare state based on dutiless rights.

In this form, not only does it fail to offer protection against the social and cultural pathology that is responsible for educational under-achievement, but it also becomes part of that very pathology since it shifts the cost of welfare from the perpetrators of disruption - anti-social families and individuals - to other taxpayers, to those who have accepted their obligations.

So it is that our welfare state, as it has now become, may actually perpetuate, instead of remedying, educational underachievement.

Until recently, such views would have been regarded as those of the unreconstructed Right. Today, however, they have come to be espoused by new Labour, by Tony Blair and by Frank Field. The new Prime Minister, like Attlee, believes that a Labour leader must be a benevolent headmaster not Father Christmas.

The question, however, is whether Blair can restore the sense of social authority that existed in the 1940s but was destroyed in the 1960s. Is there, in fact, a place for a benevolent headmaster in the world of the l990s? That is the deepest dilemma facing new Labour, and the success of the Government's educational policies will depend upon how it is resolved.

Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government, Oxford University. His book, Power and the People: a Guide to Constitutional Reform, has just been published by Gollancz.

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