Flurry of fix-its gesture

6th June 1997 at 01:00
When it comes to "rooting out educational failure", as Tony Blair described it this week, there are few quick fixes - and even fewer cheap ones. So for a Government in a hurry to show it means business on raising standards, anything it is able to do within days or weeks of coming into office - and within its own self-denying ordinance on public spending - is bound to seem something of a gesture or token of the policy to come.

What else could the last chance saloon, announced within days of the election for 18 failing schools, amount to? As one of our letter writers points out this week, what exactly are they supposed to do in the closing weeks of the summer term to bring about radical improvement before nemesis in September?

Targets; task forces; homework clubs on the lottery; literacy summer schools with cash clawed back from grant-maintained propaganda; rhetoric about support with pressure and fast-but-fair removal of incompetent teachers; single mothers and welfare-to-work windfalls.

All are demonstrations of energy and determination, rather than a coherent programme of reform; evocations of the same eclectic can-do, will-do, fresh-start ethos espoused by the Prime Minister this week on the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark (where he made his first speech since the election) and by David Blunkett at his first teacher union conference as Education Secretary.

There, he had another gesture to make: the joint appointments of Tim Brighouse and Chris Woodhead as vice-chairmen of the new school improvement task group.

Both Blair and Blunkett emphasised the Government's pragmatism, openness to ideas and rigour. "We will find out what works and we will support the successes and stop the failures," Tony Blair told his South London audience. And he went on - significantly as it turned out, since he was about to summon the chief inspector to Downing Street in a gesture of personal support - "We will back anyone ... if they can deliver the goods."

This was after the National Association of Headteachers had made a gesture of its own towards Mr Woodhead: that procedural equivalent to a two-fingered one, a vote of no confidence.

It is possible that in appointing him jointly to lead the task group Mr Blunkett - or Mr Blair - underestimated the degree of antipathy in the profession towards Mr Woodhead. The brickbat, after all, was aimed at him personally, not at the office of the chief inspector nor the Office for Standards in Education inspection regime - even though that has caused heads a fair amount of grief.

Mr Woodhead is reviled by the profession, as he is loved by the moulders of public opinion, as much for the outspoken style as the content of his pronouncements. His predecessors, after all, pointed out many of the same shortcomings in more guarded ways and were largely ignored. He stands accused of tendentiousness and debasing the historic role of HM Chief Inspector at the pinnacle of the profession, though the creation of the OFSTED in 1993 inevitably emphasised the chief inspector's role as public watchdog.

The joint BrigheadWoodhouse appointment is a typical attempt by Blunkett to have his cake and eat it. On the one hand it parades the inspirational Birmingham CEO to reassure the professionals, local authority and old Labour interests. If Blair does not, Blunkett understands he needs their support to deliver on higher standards. On the other hand it cashes in on the chief inspector's carefully cultivated public persona as a no-nonsense pursuer of the consumer interest; the man who says the unsayable and is sympathetic to new Labour's zero tolerance of failure.

Far from causing the Government any alarm, the NAHT vote probably confirmed Woodhead's value as a counterbalance to the prevailing producer interests. He provides Labour with an opportunity to distance itself from professional sensitivities in the drive on standards, much as attacks by the TUC provide useful confirmation of the party's independence from unionism.

"If you are not with us then step aside," was David Blunkett's response to the NAHT; brave words, given the record vacancies for heads and deputies. He threw down a gauntlet: put invective aside, show respect for different views, and unite behind a positive programme based not on dogma but on what can be shown to genuinely raise standards. It poses a real challenge to the profession. But then, so it does to Mr Woodhead.

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