Labour develops nervous politics

23rd February 1996 at 00:00
Harriet Harman exposed her party's education policies to the media searchlight and the questions it illuminated are still to be answered, reports Josephine Gardiner.

Labour's education policy, which was to have been administered in measured doses by the spin doctors, has been hijacked by an issue the party hoped it could quietly forget until the election was safely won. The row over selection, sparked by Harriet Harman, has also had the unfortunate effect of drawing attention to other gaps in the party's education plans.

Only 160 grammar schools survive and Labour had reasoned that these middle-class dogs could be left to sleep in peace while the real issue - standards in the other 25,000 primary schools and comprehensives - was addressed. But the party's health spokeswoman's decision to send her son to a grammar school has ensured that the selection issue will continue to snap at David Blunkett's heels.

This must be particularly galling for the shadow education secretary given that he devoted the better part of last year to healing the breach over grant-maintained schools in the wake of Tony Blair's decision to send his son to one.

Mr Blunkett now has an uphill task to dislodge the public perception that Labour is light on principles. The problem is that grammar schools have a mythic significance in England which cuts across class, politics and reason; they are held up as glowing examples of excellence by people who seem fondly to imagine that everybody would be able to go to them.

Michael Barber, dean of new initiatives at London University's Institute of Education and a Labour adviser, is confident that the Harman row will have no impact on selection policy. The fate of grammar schools, according to Labour's paper Diversity and Excellence (the only set of policies to have been passed by conference), would be decided by local parents who would be affected by the admissions system. However, it is difficult to imagine parents spontaneously deciding to change the status of their local schools and the circumstances necessary to trigger a ballot remain unclear.

Professor Barber thinks the party will publish a formal clarification of this before the election, but other Labour sources thought it would prefer to avoid inflaming the issue.

But Professor Barber said that David Blunkett will have a difficult path to tread between the comprehensive principle and parental choice. "The genie of choice is out of the bottle - Labour will not return to a rigid catchment area system." The party has also come round to the notion of specialist schools, mainly on the grounds that they can rejuvenate inner-city areas, but such schools, almost by definition, have to select their pupils. Yet Labour, says Blunkett, is implacably opposed to selection by exam or interview.

The simmering contradictions over selection tempt observers to inspect the rest of the party's plans. There are obvious gaps. The two published papers, Diversity and Excellence and Excellence for Everyone, deal respectively with structure and standards in schools. But the party as yet has published no official plans for nursery, further and higher education, or training.

With the next party conference in October the last before the next general election it is now quite likely Labour will go to the country with much of its education platform unendorsed by its supposedly supreme policy-making body. Nor is there any indication of how much everything is going to cost - the lessons of the last election have been learnt and specific spending commitments are highly unlikely before the election.

A statement on the early years, expected around now, has now been postponed until October, according to Margaret Hodge, who chairs Labour's under-fives inquiry. Ms Hodge, who admits ruefully that nursery education for all has been Labour party policy since 1919, argues that it is worth a few extra months to get it right: "We're not in a hurry . . . we can't actually do anything before the election."

Margaret Hodge says that Labour is planning an ambitious system that would integrate nursery services with day care, education with social services. "We will inherit chaos; the main problems will be to train a lot of people very fast, and to find adequate buildings - the capital infrastructure is very poor."

The Liberal Democrats have said that they would have to raise income tax by 1p in the pound to pay for nursery expansion; Labour says the money could be transferred from other departments without the need to raise taxes.

Labour also seems to have softened its commitment to providing free nursery education for every three and four-year-old. According to Margaret Hodge all four-year-olds can be catered for almost immediately using the Pounds 185 million set aside for the voucher scheme. But three-year-olds will now be "targeted" gradually, and could not be fully accommodated until a second Labour term of office - which would be well into the next century.

On Monday Education Secretary Gillian Shephard announced that Sir Ron Dearing will be leading a bipartisan inquiry into higher education - intended to be the most radical since the Robbins report 30 years ago. The Government and Labour breathed a joint sigh of relief that the sensitive question of university funding has been shelved until after the election - Sir Ron is not due to report until next summer.

Labour had been under pressure to propose a scheme to replace the student grant with some kind of graduate tax. This has intensified since the university vice-chancellors threatened to impose top-up fees unless an answer to the problems of expansion was forthcoming from the main political parties by the autumn. The Liberal Democrats responded by proposing individual learning accounts three weeks ago. But Labour has been wary that a graduate tax would alienate the middle-class voters it has been working so hard to woo.

Bryan Davies, Labour's higher education spokesman, had been promising a policy paper in May - this will now be subsumed into Labour's submission to Sir Ron's inquiry, but the proposals will still be available for public scrutiny.

Another two papers, on 14-19 qualifications and "training and learning for work" are expected within a month.The latter is being rewritten because the original version was thought to be too hesitant about asking for contributions from industry for training.

Mr Blunkett's balancing act will come under scrutiny as the Easter conferences loom. Having spent the last year getting tough on bad teaching and the causes of bad teaching, it is thought that this time around he will concentrate on winning teachers' hearts and minds for his "crusade". This will not be easy. The Secondary Heads Association has criticised both Diversity and Excellence (on its lack of detail) and Excellence for Everyone (for its "touching faith" in local authorities), while many classroom teachers remain suspicious of Labour.

Tony Blair, meanwhile, has indicated in the past that he admires Margaret Thatcher for her conviction; what seems to be clear from a recent spate of opinion polls is that voters are prepared to forgive a little inconsistency in education policy provided that there is a sense of underlying principle. Labour's task on education will be to prove that the conviction is still there.

END XSLUG:jglew-1 FROM:disk1suppstes23.10.1em.TXY EDITION: PAGE:10 NAME:Paula SOURCE:The Times Educational Supplement ISSUE:4156 DATE:23 February 1996 COPYRT: KEYWORDS: HEADLINE:Between the softies and the deep blue sea BYLINE:Josephine Gardiner SECTION:Home news STORY: "David Blunkett has grasped the nettle of school improvement; nothing is more important than this, and we will not be deflected from it by mischief-makers on the Right or the Left, " says Gavin Moore, Lewisham's chair of education, firmly.

Under Labour, every local authority would have to produce a strategic plan explaining exactly how standards in its schools were to be raised. The idea is outlined in the policy paper Excellence for Everyone and illustrates the party's enhanced role for the local authority as "a raiser of standards rather than a chain of command". Since last summer, the London borough of Lewisham has been trying this idea out.

Gavin Moore hints that the policy has not been given an entirely smooth ride in the schools: "While most of our teachers share our view of what needs to be done, the local National Union of Teachers is not very progressive. We have to steer a course between those who accuse Labour of letting schools off the hook and giving support without pressure, and those who accuse us of teacher-bashing and promoting Tory ideas by another name."

Lewisham is one of the 26 authorities pioneering Labour's policies to raise standards. On the evidence of raw league tables there is cause for concern: last year 29 per cent of pupils gained five GCSEs grades A-C compared with the national average of 43 per cent.

The borough, a mix of inner-city and suburbia, contains a high proportion of pupils from ethnic minorities. It now has an ambitious five-year plan: the multitude of targets for the new millennium include raising the number of pupils with five A to C grades to 42 per cent, a massive literacy drive to bring all key stages in line with national reading standards, and creating 1,200 nursery places. Governors are also to be trained to help them understand their role and to take a more confident and critical approach to standards.

In the past, says Vivienne Hiett, head of governors' services, governors tended to take a passive role, supporting the head regardless. "They've got past the stage of asking themselves 'can we run a budget?'- now we want them to take a long term view and ask 'are we making a difference?'" Another priority, says Gavin Moore, is to clarify the context in which the schools are operating and introduce baseline assessment so that improvement can be measured. "We have to be careful how the value-added approach is presented. It's a balance between making allowances and not being seen to be making excuses."

Labour's target-setting idea has been criticised on the grounds that it could create bureaucracy and give people the impression they are getting things done when this might not be so. But nobody could accuse Lewisham's targets of being vague or unambitious - success or otherwise should be easy to measure.

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