Editorial: Passion in action

11th July 1997 at 01:00
It's been a good week for David Blunkett and his White Paper, which has appeared to almost universal acclaim. The pundits, the opinion-formers, the mass media, the local education authorities, even the teachers - all were impressed by its air of optimism and determination. The boy who started school aged four at a boarding institution for the blind and rose to become Secretary of State for Education epitomises the "can do" attitude which he is now urging upon us all.

Blunkett describes the White Paper as a "jigsaw," made up of interlocking policies which offer a coherent and comprehens ive programme. Education, he says, is now at the heart of government. Certainly, Chancellor Gordon Brown's Budget speech last week for the first time tied issues such as schooling and child care into economic policy in a way which has never been seen before.

Particularly exciting is the scope of the education team's ambition and their understanding of how different elements of policy interact. To see issues such as child care, good parenting and homework centres featuring there alongside target-setting and professional development shows a breadth of outlook and understanding of social issues which has been sorely lacking for the last two decades.

Indeed, the commitment to restore nutritional standards for school meals is an important political signal that this is not a Tory agenda - since releasing local authorities from their duty to provide nourishing food was the virtually the first piece of deregulating legislation passed by the new Thatcher government in 1979. It has resulted in countless children lunching on such nutritious delicacies as sausage roll, chips and a chocolate biscuit five days a week.

It is of course fashionable to criticise the "nanny" state and its tendency to reward dependence. Yet it also should be remembered that the setting up of the welfare state after the war was a result of the shared experience of endurance and victory which, for once, blurred the boundaries of class, and gave rise to a conviction that since everyone had suffered, everyone should now benefit.

Today, of course, it all looks different; but young people still need to feel that society cares about them. If it does not, why should they care about society? So the White Paper combines - with some success - robust rhetoric about high standards and responsibility with a recognition that people sometimes need a leg up. Lone mothers cannot work if there is no one to look after their children; 10-year-olds cannot learn if they are hungry; bedsitter children need somewhere to do their homework.

All this said, amid all the well-earned plaudits, this document looks extraordinarily difficult to translate into meaningful legislation, and there are some very knotty problems to sort out. Who will sit on the General Teaching Council, and what sort of role will it have? How will a workable framework of foundation, aided and community schools be established? How can enormous amounts of effective in-service training - and the cover which such a programme requires - be achieved on a shoestring? Can local authorities be expected to play a stronger central role in monitoring schools, if at the same time they have to delegate yet more money?

It is hard to see how such difficulties can be resolved in time for a definitive autumn Education Bill - since many involve not just planning and consultation, but prolonged negotiation and political horse-trading.

Perhaps the White Paper should be seen as a new animal - something rather like the French political device known as a loi d'orientation. This type of law is not directly enacted, but is a vehicle for expressing aspirations, setting targets, identifying objectives - in short, for shifting the climate of opinion.

This, it seems, is the White Paper's key function: to change the culture - not only of schools, but of parents, young people and society as a whole. Blunkett sees Britain's recent fall-off in educational aspiration as "corrosive", and wants to rid us of the "perpetual sneer" which, he says, is all too common among young people and in the media.

It's a tricky balancing act. It could be argued that healthy scepticism is an important British trait and our best defence against tyranny. But that can easily turn into destructive cynicism. David Blunkett describes his document as "passion translated into a programme of action". It may not be easy to do, but in the age of new dawns and new deals, teachers need to gather the tattered remnants of their idealism around them, and give Excellence in Schools their whole-hearted support.

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