Blair's legacy secured by sturdy bookends

5th January 2007 at 00:00
Anthony Seldon is master of Wellington College in Berkshire

2007 will be the year of reckoning on Tony Blair. No subject will be chewed over as remorselessly as his education policy. This first column of the year is a good place to consider what his legacy might be.

Never in British history has a prime minister taken so much personal interest in education; never has a government spent as much on education or made it such a priority. Mr Blair signalled his intent with his "education, education, education" speech - words he echoed last month at his seminal speech in Birmingham to the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust conference. Those three words are the bookends of his premiership.

There are critics on all sides. The left are livid with him for abandoning comprehensives, introducing greater independence and diversity, and for his contempt for the education establishment. The right think he has not gone far enough in introducing choice and diversity or severing the link to local government.

The education establishment and the unions dislike much of what he achieved, and remain sceptical about academies, which they consider expensive and threateningly independent. In contrast, I think Mr Blair has done well with education. Standards are up, new school buildings have sprouted from Penzance to Thurso, discipline is better, and teaching a more respected and better rewarded profession. The moot point remains whether the improvements have been sufficient given the vast injection of resources.

Academies may be seen as Mr Blair's biggest education achievement. The jury is still out, but successful academies, as in Hackney, are transforming young people's lives. Only a miser would deny Mr Blair credit. Specialist schools have been another signal achievement. It is heartening that schools are acquiring second specialisms; it was wrong and perverse for them to specialise in just one.

An irony of the Blair premiership is that he will depart when his education policy is in full bloom, and with a strong figure in charge. More bookends: his best Education Secretaries were his first and his last.

The major criticism of education policy over the past 10 years has been that it has lacked vision. Is education only about entrance to university or work? It should be about developing all seven aptitudes of each child: logicalsequential, linguistic, interpersonal, emotional, artistic, kinaesthetic and spiritualmoral. It is regrettable that attention has been overly focused on the first two, and that the stronghold of testing and exams has led to a too narrow reading of what education is all about.

That is surprising because this Prime Minister is a more holistic thinker than most, and has had the benefit of having young children at Number 10.

He must have asked himself whether his children were being developed and stretched as fully at school as they might have been.

Governments never transform education. All imagine they can achieve much more than they can. But this Government, by giving some power back to schools, teachers and parents, has done more than most.


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