The heart of the matter

19th December 1997 at 00:00
I have come to the conclusion that what this Government most seriously lacks is the common touch. Spin and polish is all very well, and so is having pop stars and schoolchildren round to Downing Street. Like the Prime Minister and the late Princess of Wales, I am sure that young people growing into citizens find it easier to identify with recognisable human beings than with flunkies in black tights and ceremonial dress hallowed by tradition.

But when it comes to selling their policies, most of our ministers no longer seem to have the language to strike a chord with most of the people they are going to affect and, certainly in the case of education and social services, with the only people who can make them work.

I will come to Harriet Harman later, but take for the moment David Blunkett or Stephen Byers, two eloquent men of the people who made it the hard way in north country streets, further education colleges and local politics, but who now slip too often into a civil servant-speak of global economics, targets, and blame.

I do not, in the main, quarrel with the policies. I believe that education action zones offer the sort of all-out engagement necessary to zap the effects of urban or rural deprivation. I am delighted that an integrated approach to the social and educational needs of children under five is finally beginning to take shape. I applaud the determination to bring even the least promising schools and children up to scratch. I can even see the point of foundation schools as a half-way house for the grant-maintained sector.

I suspect, however, that it all might go down so much better if our leaders borrowed some of their language, as well as their ideas, from across the Atlantic. And I don't just mean zero tolerance, though that is an example of directness that hits home with total clarity.

When I was in the United States visiting inner-city schools a few years back, I encountered two leaders who could both speak up for education and inspire an audience in a way that any guru here - let alone a politician - would die for.

Ernest Boyer had held every top job - from schools superintendant to federal education secretary - and was by then president of the influential Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, but he always used direct language that got to the heart of the matter. For example, the trouble with "magnet" schools, he said, was that they missed out the children whose parents "didn't know how to call around" - the best argument against the market approach to parental choice that I have heard. And he invented the phrase "Ready to learn", later adopted by nursery education advocates in this country.

Thomas Sobol, then superintendant of schools for New York State, was a man of erudition and wit, but he also knew when to use simple home-spun phrases like "every child can learn" in expounding his educational philosophy, or indeed that idea later taken up by Hillary Clinton: "It takes the whole village to raise a child".

Such phrases may sound corny, but they encapsulate Labour policy and its essential differences from the Conservative dogma that went before very succinctly. Taken seriously, "every child can learn" means that you don't just concentrate effort and money on the brightest, best and richest and then leave it to the cascade effect to wash down on the rest until they sink or swim.

Instead, you make sure that effort is put behind every child, which is much harder but justifies wall-to-wall targets as well as extreme measures for schools which lose sight of the potential of their pupils.

"It takes the whole education action zone to raise a child" doesn't have the same ring about it as the original, but it recognises the same truth, that a school cannot be detached from its social background and that the poorest most of all need their whole community (or village), including business people, the official services and volunteers, to work with teachers and parents if all their children are to grow successfully.

An extension of this message is that the different services at local and national level need to mesh together far better than they do now if they are to meet the needs of children and young people, rather than of the different ministers, departments and disciplines who find it so hard to work together in the face of funding, professional or political rivalries.

This seems to be the hardest trick to pull off, which is why it was such good news to hear Tony Blair talk along the same lines at the launch of his Social Exclusion Unit. I was encouraged to hear David Blunkett say at an autumn conference that his only regret about his White Paper was that it didn't say more about inter-agency co-operation.

I was even more hopeful when I heard that the Departments of Education and of Social Security are shortly to bring out a joint paper on harmonising their services for children under five. The pilot early learning centres are already an excellent example of the way ahead.

And I heard on the grapevine that the Treasury's spending review includes an unprecedented cross-departmental analysis of spending on young children. That might sound ominous to the constant cuts victim, but ought to mean that the Whitehall village can make better decisions as to how best to spend money in the right way at the right time, for example on nursery education-plus-care for disadvantaged three-year-olds, rather than on retribution later for illiterate delinquents. As David Blunkett admitted in a recent article: "We put far more money into mopping up problems than we do in preventing them."

Which brings me back to Harriet Harman. Her argument on benefits cuts for single mothers had a cold Treasury rationale to it, but utterly failed to mesh with the more socially coherent policies the Prime Minister has been telling us about. This is particularly unfortunate since she has Cabinet responsibility for women. Would a Children's Minister do any better?

This is worth asking since Harriet seems the only one out of step with wider moves to integrate education and care for young children. How does her promised child-care to help single mothers back to work fit in with the rest of the early years programme? What about nursery education for these children?

Of course, many more single mothers would be working already if children's services were not so fragmented, and they are not the only ones waiting for better provision.

But she managed to make child-care sound like a threat instead of a promise, when the problem should begin to solve itself in a few years - without singling out lone parents - when more coherent services are in place. There must be better ways to sell a policy.

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