In the great tradition?;Platform;Opinion

1st May 1998 at 01:00
Before Labour swept to power a year ago, Tony Blair named his priorities as "education,education and education". Maurice Peston looks at how policy has lived up to the soundbite.

In his famous pronouncement in favour of education cubed Mr Blair placed himself in the mainstream tradition of the Labour party. From its very beginnings Labour (and for that matter, the trades unions) have seen education as the passport to individual emancipation and the transformation of society into a better - by which they meant fairer - place. Whether we are talking about RH Tawney or Anthony Crosland or the other great philosophers of the party, education has always mattered. And it is apparent from the first year of this Government that it still does.

By any standards the education team's achievement has been remarkable. The immediate announcement of the abolition of the Assisted Places Scheme, and the use of the funds to reduce class sizes are cases in point. Assisted places were a misuse of public funds backed by the absurd argument that the money was somehow not available for other purposes in education.

The setting of the target for nursery and similar places for all four-year-olds is another example of how the new Government is establishing priorities which will benefit children at large rather than a select few. It is also impossible to exaggerate the pride one feels that at long last corporal punishment has been abolished in all schools and nurseries.

At least as important as these, and probably more significant in the long run, is the General Teaching Council. This innovation is long overdue, and no previous government has succeeded in setting up a body to enable teachers to be self-governing. Ministers have been rather cautious, but in the future this will be seen as perhaps the most significant educational initiative of this administration.

I now turn to the most serious criticisms. One is the introduction of university tuition fees. I was one of the first advocates of the introduction of loan schemes to replace student grants in this country. It seemed to me more than 30 years ago, when entrance to higher education was essentially rationed, and there were therefore no marginal students, that a loan scheme would be a progressive measure. I became converted to the view that the best loan scheme would be one in which payments were contingent on future income, and this still makes sense even though higher education has expanded enormously compared with the early 1960s.

The Government was right to introduce the income-contingent loan scheme. Where I am mystified is in its introduction of tuition fees. This was done without debate, and on the basis of a report by Sir Ron Dearing, the intellectual foundations of which are, to say the least, not compelling.

Since it has been the ambition of all those in the Labour party connected with education to remove fee-paying in all its forms, it might have been expected that any move in the opposite direction would have been the result of serious discussion, not simply announced on a take-it-or-leave-it loyalty-to the-party basis. Quite apart from the principle involved, it also seems to me to be an administrative mess. A useful part of the loan scheme was the ending of the parental contribution. What mattered was prospective income, not past accumulated wealth. Because of tuition fees we are stuck with parental means testing (on a European Union-wide basis, believe it or not), and all the bureaucracy that accompanies that.

More to the point, the question of top-up fees has come to the fore. In a hand-to-mouth approach which convinces me that the Department for Education and Employment thought through none of this before announcing the policy, ministers have said that top-up fees will not be allowed by law. In anything but the shortest term, that is not a sustainable position. I am certain that before long we shall have variations in fees between institutions; and the differences (of class and race composition) and inequalities (especially of resources) in our higher education system will be exacerbated. What I am convinced of is that this should not have been allowed to happen without serious public discussion.

Lastly, there is the question of selection in secondary education. It appears that selection by ability is unacceptable, but selection by aptitude is all right. Ministers have offered the most convoluted explanation of the distinction - which is certainly beyond my ability to understand.

I had guessed that "aptitude" meant specific as opposed to general ability, but that does not seem to be the ministerial interpretation. But whatever they mean, illogicality emerges. Is, for example, an aptitude for mathematics acceptable as a basis for selection, but only if it is uncorrelated with an aptitude for anything else? Does the same rule apply to musical aptitude?

Apart from that there do not appear to be any provisions to guarantee that election by aptitude does not lead to bias in the social class and race composition of schools.

The illogicality applies even more strongly when it comes to dealing with existing academic selection. This will be decided by the votes of relevant parents. But if it is right that academic selection can stay if parents vote for it, why is it not also right that such selection can be introduced if parents vote for it?

More generally, to hark back to the history of the Labour party, if academically selective state schools are wrong, why should we not get rid of them? All of this reminds me of something Tawney once wrote: "The characteristic virtue of Englishmen is the power of sustained practical activity and their characteristic vice a reluctance to test the quality of that activity by reference to principles."

Lord Peston, the Labour peer, is Emeritus Professor of Economics at Queen Mary College, University of London

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