Chronicle of missed opportunity

12th November 2004 at 00:00
A critique of Labour's education policy over the past century makes the mistake of assuming the existence of a single ideology, argues Roy Hattersley

Education and Labour Party Ideologies: 1900-2001 and beyond

By Denis Lawton. Woburn Education Series. RoutledgeFalmer pound;24.99

On the day, more than 30 years ago, when I was appointed the Opposition's education spokesman, Ted Short (my predecessor) warned me against believing that the Labour party took the subject seriously. He was speaking with the benefit of experience. In office - succeeding the colourless Patrick Gordon-Walker and the glamorous Tony Crosland - he had wanted to introduce a bill that required all local education authorities to end secondary selection. His colleagues had been at best unenthusiastic.

By the time his proposal found a place in the legislative programme, the 1966 Parliament had almost run its course. The bill was still being debated when the general election was declared and it was lost with Labour's majority in the House of Commons. Although I lived through the disappointments of 1970, I was shocked by Short's description of the Cabinet's disregard for what seemed to me one of the basic obligations of a social democratic administration.

Denis Lawton - emeritus professor of education at the London Institute of Education - will, no doubt, be surprised by my naivety. His Education and Labour Party Ideologies is the story of a century of disappointment and disillusion. The gloom is the inevitable result of Lawton's mistaken assumption that something called Labour ideology exists.

Richard Crossman complained that the party regarded intellectual speculation as "best left to proponents of Soviet Communism and American capitalism". Labour simply got on with the business of making things better.

Lawton's heroes are RH Tawney and William Morris, neither of whom ever had to argue with the Treasury about the need to increase education spending.

He indicts the practitioners for their failure to fulfil the hopes of the ideologues, and in many cases for not even aspiring to do so. That makes him "Old Labour" at its most geriatric.

His recurring complaint that Labour has never faced up to the damage done by the existence of a fee-paying sector now seems quaintly out of date. The party's last public criticism of public schools was made by me in 1972. As Lawton reports, Harold Wilson told me my speech on the subject was the reason I was not translated from shadow into substance.

The issue is now politically dead. But Tawney's judgment that the "existence of a group of schools reserved for the children of the relatively prosperous" cannot be justified by "the venerable device of describing privileges as liberties" remains relevant and indisputable.

Tawney, as Lawton makes clear, represents only one strand in the thinking that motivated the Labour Representation Committee and the Labour party which it became. The other was, in its way, essentially utilitarian.

Increased equality would produce increased efficiency.

Both views were moderated and, to a certain extent, challenged by the Liberal enthusiasm for meritocracy - the throwback to Gladstone's first administration and the removal of the barriers that prevented talented members of the lower orders from making progress in society. It was a belief in meritocracy - 40 years before the word was invented - that prompted Sidney Webb to argue in favour of the 1902 Education Act.

According to Robert Morat, its author, "Extending opportunity to the working class meant (offering them) a right to share a liberal education in its highest form." But neither he, nor Arthur Balfour, the Conservative leader who took the bill through the Commons, ever thought such opportunities could be on offer to the class as a whole.

The 1902 act, as well as extending the universal elementary education that 1870 had promised but not realised, was an episode in the long-running dispute about whether progress was best made by a divided or unified school population. Shamefully and typically, Labour's reaction was influenced more by the vested interests of the London School Board and the Nonconformist church than by the merits of the argument.

Lawton reports with weary repetition Labour's constant habit of "disappointing" progressive educationists (Herbert Fisher in 1917 and GM Trevelyan in 1939) by relegating the policy to a position of minor importance (Ramsay MacDonald in 1924 and Clement Attlee in 1945) and treating the subject superficially. Astonishingly, Tony Crosland is convicted of that final offence largely on the evidence of his major book The Future of Socialism (which called for streaming in comprehensive schools) and the testimony of AH Halsey, who accused him of being a "playboy". Streaming is one of the subjects about which sensible people are often silly. It is right in some disciplines but wrong in others. And Halsey, great man though I know him to be, is more likely to be wrong about Tony Crosland than any other topic. Two more different, though equally admirable, radicals are impossible to imagine.

After 100 pages of complaint against Labour ministers who at least claimed to be social democrats, it is hardly surprising that Lawton's judgment on Tony Blair (who boasts of his contempt for ancient ideologies) is unequivocally damning. "The Third Way in education will not do as a set of policies, not least because it conflicts with essential Labour voters. It is not acceptable pragmatically because it does not work." That is an indictment of those parts of education policy which, over the past seven years, have sacrificed principles for votes. The habit is exemplified by David Blunkett's promise of "no selection by examination or interview", which sounded like a new policy. Once Blunkett claimed that he meant "no more selection" he was announcing the acceptance of the Tory status quo.

All that being said - and proper praise being given to the wonderfully clear analysis of what has happened in education during the past 120 years - the book retains a crucial fault. It is written in the spirit that infects so many education ultras. To them, education is all that matters, and failure to accept that is unforgivable. This all-or-nothing approach to the subject is one of the reasons why, within the Labour Party, educationists' opinions have never merited the attention and respect they deserve.

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