Change the tune, Tony

15th September 2000 at 01:00
LIKE a middle-aged rock star whose glory days are behind him, Tony Blair has returned to his favourite tunes.

This week's offering is a compilation of greatest hits from his 1995-8 heyday. The themes - modernising comprehensives, extra help for gifted children and protest against mixed-ability education - run through much of the Prime Minister's back-catalogue.

Whenever Mr Blair opines about education, he tells us more about his prejudices than about the reality in schools. His views appear strongly influenced by both Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, and his own experience as a parent.

Like Mr Woodhead, Mr Blair is intent on waging war against an educational establishment that no longer holds sway in schools. And as an Islington parent, he clearly sympathises most with those who view their local comprehensive as unacceptable for their children.

But the undoubtedly serious problems of some inner-city schools do not exist in most comprehensives. In his desire to gain favourable headlines, Mr Blair is guilty of spreading "ugly rumours" about the state system as a whole and depressing teachers' morale.

He is also in danger of losing sight of a larger problem. Reserch by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (see, page 25) suggests that a third of children in Britain live in poverty. It is these children who - - however able - - are most likely to be underachievers.

Mr Blair's speech offers little for them. As we report on our front page, programmes for gifted children are dominated by the middle classes. Pupils from deprived backgrounds, who would benefit most from the extra help, are rarely chosen.

If Labour are to achieve their stated aim of raising standards for the many and not the few, then they need to offer disadvantaged children real assistance in the real world.

Tony Blair's "one size fits all" image of comprehensives is a nonsense. The fact is that the vast majority of schools already set pupils according to ability and attainment and, with specialist schools, city technology colleges, foundation, religious and community schools, the state system can hardly be accused of lacking diversity.

Accusing schools of imposing an egalitarian uniformity upon all children is like accusing Labour of wanting to tax the rich until their pips squeak. It may have been true in the 1970s, but it no longer stands up to examination.

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