Hurrah for Blair, the great liberator

20th January 2006 at 00:00
The Prime Minister is trying to encourage state schools to become more independent. This is an excellent move but predictably his white paper has attracted all kinds of anger and ridicule. Labour MPs, local government and teaching unions are all against the move. All have vested interests for opposing the move, most notably local authorities. They baulk at losing some of their empire. The unions have almost always been on the wrong side of education debates: they have been one of the biggest forces for bad in British education since the Second World War. Some Labour MPs have ideological reasons for opposing greater independence: their objections are sincere if misguided. But too many other MPs are opposing the changes because it is the Prime Minister's pet project and they don't like the Prime Minister. By opposing the white paper, they are trying to hasten his departure. They should not play politics with something as important as education.

Some heads oppose greater independence. This is odd as heads should surely want to have more freedom. If they don't, perhaps they shouldn't be heads.

One of the Prime Minister's most commendable features is his open-mindedness. He rejects the traditional mindset and values of the Labour party where he believes that they run against the interests of those who the party purports to be serving. No Labour Prime Minister has done more to re-educate the party in the realities of working people's lives and aspirations.

Ever since he became leader Tony Blair has made education his number one priority. He can see that central control stultifies schools as it stultifies teachers. He is concerned to free up schools. He is the first Prime Minister for many years to acknowledge that state schools can learn from private schools. As he said to surprised guests at a Downing Street breakfast in the summer "we have much to learn from the independent sector". Hurrah! At last a senior politician has had the courage to admit that the independent sector in Britain is truly world-class. The sector is powerfully successful not only in its domination of top academic results, but also in its turning out disproportionate numbers of the country's top sportsmen and women, artists and other high achievers. The ritual denigration of independent schools has got to end. It is a 20th-century discourse, and its time has passed.

One reason why independent schools are so successful is because they are independent. Of course, we have to operate within a legal framework and we must teach set subjects for a national exam system. We are also answerable to our parents, a healthy discipline. But we can choose how to run our schools, the balance of subjects and extra curricular activities, and even which examination system we choose to follow.

A core reason for the low morale and empty spaces among headteachers is the bureaucracy and lack of autonomy in the traditional mould. Let us make every state school independent of the state. The quality and morale of schools would rise enormously. Heads who couldn't cope would leave. Local government would be disheartened, but local democracy would be the gainer.

Unions would huff. Good. And if Labour MPs really cared for schools, they would be right behind the move.

This will be the real battleground of education for the next 20 years. And the Prime Minister has fired the first shots.

Anthony Seldon is master of Wellington college and is author of Blair, a biography of the Prime Minister

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