Labour hits back at 'elitist' attackers

23rd July 1999 at 01:00
The Government says liberals who criticise its focus on tests and targets are betraying working-class children. Chris Bunting reports

The Government has launched a coordinated assault on critics of its tests and targets, dismissing them as middle-class "elitists" who ignore the needs of working-class children.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, Education Secretary David Blunkett and the chief inspector of schools all joined the attack, designed to counter accusations that government policies on literacy and numeracy have squeezed creativity out of the classroom.

Last week David Almond, the author and winner of the Carnegie Medal for children's literature, ridiculed a Government he said was so obsessed with testing, it might as well "assess children in nappies" (see right).

But Mr Blunkett said criticism of the Government's policies was "blatant elitism dressed up as well-intentioned liberalism". Those who resisted reforms hankered "after the quiet life of the past when the failure of half of our pupils was taken for granted," he told a Confederation of British Industry conference this week.

He condemned purveyors of "the ill-disciplined 'anything goes' philosophy" who rarely applied "their findings to their own children, only to other people's".

The Government's offensive began with an article placed by Mr Blunkett in the Daily Mail on Monday and culminated in the Prime Minister's appearance on BBC2's Newsnight the same evening.

Chief inspector Chris Woodhead weighed in on the politicians' side the next day, writing in the Independent.

Mr Blunkett dismissed researchers at Durham University who had questioned the Government's policy of encouraging more homework for young children. Mr Woodhead reserved his fire for Mr Almond, who had claimed that the focus on tests and targets was crippling children's imagination.

In his speech to the CBI conference in London, Mr Blunkett issued a warning to researchers studying government policies: "Parents are unsure what the experts are telling them. That is why those who give advice in education need to be wary that they don't discourage parents from making a contribution to the welfare and life chances of children.

"We have researchers who tell us that asking five-year-olds to count to 10 is putting too much pressure on them. I would like to see them with their own children at the age of three or four when they get to the part where they can count to eight and they say, 'So far and no further'."

The headline-grabbing attacks obscured a wide-ranging review of education policy in Mr Blunkett's CBI speech. This marked the start of a mid-term media strategy to promote the Government's achievements across all departments.

He claimed his reform programme had already reduced the number of failing schools, cut infant-class sizes all over the country and reduced exclusions for the first time in a decade.

The comprehensive system of the 1970s and 80s is a "tainted legacy", Mr Blunkett told the CBI. While backing the comprehensive principle, he called for teachers to abandon a "dogmatic attachment to mixed ability teaching" and reaffirmed his commitment to specialist technology, arts and sports colleges.

David Almond, 12

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