Education is the new political psychodrama

6th July 2007 at 01:00
In his book 1 out of 10, Peter Hyman, the Blair aide who left Number 10 to become a teacher, lists 15 plans, projects or strategies that his school was meant to tackle all at the same time. Which, he asks, are meant to have priority? Health or "citizenship action"? Behaviour or "leadership improvement"? Homework or "work-related action"?

As Mr Hyman learnt, heads and teachers spent too long responding to initiatives and bidding for money to do what they were doing (or planning to do) anyway. The Government, he concluded, should provide the hardware (funding, buildings, qualifications) and help to design the operating system (diversity, parental choice) while leaving software (teaching and learning) to schools.

It won't happen. As the Brown era begins, Labour and the Tories are arguing over setting against streaming. Mr Brown has promised to improve behaviour. He wants a "personal learning guide" for every pupil, a business partner for every school, after-school tuition, rigour in teaching methods, and good manners.

Some may be encouraged that Ed Balls, once Mr Brown's closest aide, has been appointed to the new schools, children and families department. It is Mr Balls's first Cabinet post and he will want to get himself noticed. I do not see him keeping his hands off the software. The scope of his brief (including obesity, social behaviour and parenting) suggests he will be minister for poking his nose into everyone's business.

Politicians have abdicated responsibility for much that used to preoccupy them. They no longer set exchange or interest rates, or tell banks how much they can lend, or set tariffs and quotas on imports. They no longer run the utilities and play no role in industrial relations. Instead, they micro-manage public services. Education, health and policing dominate the political psychodrama the way the pound used to. Exam results, hospital waiting lists and crime figures have replaced the balance of payments in making or breaking politicians.

While calls for more regulation of supermarkets and private equity firms go unheeded, Mr Brown enlists their bosses to join his new National Council for Educational Excellence so they can "play a bigger part in support of our schools" that is, they can tell schools what to do and will be restrained, if at all, by "voluntary codes".

The PM has a good sense of educational priorities. He knows he needs to do more for the bottom 40 per cent. That means funding, encouragement and a common diploma for 14 to 18-year-olds. But we shall get targets, tests, action programmes and bundles of fivers for anyone who signs up to a minister's latest bright idea.

Politicians can thus appear usefully occupied, control the news agenda and take credit for any success that emerges. In hoping for something better, Mr Hyman forgot the lessons he learnt at Number 10.

Peter Wilby is former editor of New Statesman

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