From the Harman affair to the return of caning

27th December 1996 at 00:00
Susan Young reviews a year marked by tragedy and disputes over the issue of disruptive pupils in class

The level of educational politics in 1996 rarely rose above the banal, starting with the bang of Labour front-bencher Harriet Harman's choice of selective school for her son and ending with the whimper of Tories canvassing for the return of caning.

In many ways, the Harman affair set the tone. It was a perceived weak spot in Labour's electoral armour that Government ministers sought to exploit, both at the time and later in an education White Paper which set out plans to allow increased selection for all types of school.

While the White Paper failed to deliver John Major's promise from the previous autumn of a grammar school in every town, it marked a significant victory for the Conservatives' grammar lobby and the right, which had been looking to put "clear blue water" between themselves and Labour.

The new policy, which amounted to a compromise between Downing Street, Central Office and an at times embattled Education and Employment Secretary, was the result of a worsening series of backstage rows.

Ms Harman's choice of Bromley grammar St Olave's for her son, Joe - in preference to academically less stunning comprehensives in her home borough of Southwark - caused massive rows in her own party, especially after leader Tony Blair had made a similar choice for his own son, Euan.

Although Ms Harman handled the matter badly, only agreeing to an interview on Channel 4 News at the height of the furore and appearing less than convincing, electorally it seemed as though the saga had actually done Labour good. Opinion polls seemed to show support among parents, who also wanted the best for their children.

Gillian Shephard had her own troubles, too, as the summer wore on. Rumours began to circulate that she was not right-wing enough for the men in grey suits and particularly Tory party chairman Brian Mawhinney.

Sources later confirmed that there was a "Get Gilly" mood among senior Tories, fuelled partly by Mrs Shephard's perceived failure to deny swiftly enough the rumours that she might have been interested in the leadership if John Major had been voted out the previous summer.

Her attempts to fend off a more radical selection policy ended in compromise, with ferocious right-wing rhetoric concealing the more moderate nature of the legislation. But Mrs Shephard's now prickly relationship with the Prime Minister again came unstuck on the matter of caning.

The year's moral panic - sparked off by the murder of headteacher Philip Lawrence by a schoolboy and members of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers threatening to walk out of schools over the behaviour of children who were reinstated after exclusion - was a golden opportunity for politicians to opine on the state of today's youth.

Astonishingly, Mrs Shephard took an extreme line, suggesting that the return of caning would be a good thing - that is, until an irate and publicly humiliating call from John Major to her mobile phone during a school visit forced her silence on the matter.

That did not stop James Pawsey, chairman of the Conservative back-bench education committee, trying to insert the idea into the current education Bill. This particular piece of legislation - intended to give legal force to the White Paper's measures on selection and discipline - has been dogged by mishaps, indicating the tough task the Government faces getting it through Parliament in the new year.

Such is the pressure of parliamentary time with such a long Bill that it may ultimately be pared down to those measures on which both sides agree: this means the clauses on discipline, with longer periods of fixed-term exclusion, more readily available detention and the availability of home-school behaviour contracts as a schools admission measure.

The creation of a super-quango, the Qualifications and National Curriculum Authority, out of the two existing bodies is also likely to go ahead, come what may.

The other political legacy of 1996 will become apparent to the parents of four-year-olds during the next few months, when their post contains mysterious application forms inviting them to send off for nursery vouchers.

After piloting in four authorities - at least one of which was unhappy about the scheme - the vouchers are due to go nationwide in April, following legislation earlier this year.

And the prediction for 1997? Expect education to remain a political hot potato, with selective schools a particular bone of contention.

But don't expect the level of debate to rise. After all, when Tony Blair announced in the autumn that his passions were going to be "education, education and education", all John Major could do was agree that his were the same "but not necessarily in that order".

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