Enough rope for a ladder or a noose

1st December 2006 at 00:00
Suddenly, education policy, whose future was uncertain, is becoming clearer. For the past five and more years, there have been three distinctive policies. First, Tony Blair's distinctive new Labour policy.

After the first term, with its focus on improving standards in primary schools, primarily by the numeracy and literacy strategies, Mr Blair began to define his own distinctive agenda, which emerged only after the 2001 general election.

Forged by Andrew Adonis, with significant input from Alistair Campbell, Cyril Taylor, and Michael Barber, the agenda was all about giving state schools greater independence, allowing schools to specialise in their chosen areas, giving parents at least some choice over schools, and heads more freedom to run schools their own way, independently of local authorities, and introducing a new development of the Tories' city technology colleges in the form of "academies".

This agenda would have gone further had it not been for the Iraq war, which distracted Mr Blair and lost him a huge amount of political capital in the Labour party and trust from the country. Chancellor Gordon Brown's opposition has also been poisonous. One can only imagine how different schools would have been in late 2006 had the agenda not been hijacked by President Bush's antics and obstructed by Mr Brown and his acolytes. My own belief is that parents and pupils have been the losers.

The second education policy has been Mr Brown's. This has been wholly negative, and has been defined by what he and his ally Ed Balls have disliked about education - essentially anything to do with Andrew Adonis - rather than offer any positive policies of their own. For Mr Brown, opposition to the Prime Minister's second-term policy on university tuition fees always had more to do with winning the premiership from a man he thought was fatally wounded from the Iraq war, rather than any direct concern or interest in the welfare of students.

Mr Brown simply has had no education policy. But now things are changing.

Maybe it is becoming a father. Expect him to come out in favour of increasing independence for schools and even academies.

The third distinctive policy is that of the Conservatives. In the dark days of Tory pre-Cameron history, the Tories, like Mr Brown, had no policy based on principle or empiricism, but rather sought to wound and defeat Mr Blair, as in their opposition to top-up fees. Now things are different, and in David Willetts the Tories at last have a shadow education secretary with intelligence and interest in education.

Last month, Mr Cameron opened an academy and announced that they are the future. Expect the target figure for academies, now at 200, to be increased. The Tories too support greater specialisation, increased independence and, to a limited and still unclear extent, choice for parents.

So in the past few weeks, the three separate strands of policy are being woven into one rope. It is yet to be seen whether the rope will make a ladder for children to climb to new heights of aspiration or a noose that will choke schools.

Anthony Seldon is master of Wellington College in Berkshire

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