Last week I was the warm-up speaker for David Blunkett at the Industrial Society conference "Back me or sack me". I had an opportunity to hear his message. Until now I guessed that Labour's wholly misguided education policy was part of a cynical rightward drift, engineered to appease middle England with tough noises about discipline and standards.
But David Blunkett is a transparently good, honest man, corrupted less than most politicians by the desire to please voters. As he talked about a school showing a 300 per cent increase in GCSE (5 A to C) grades inside four years, I recognised with horror that his belief in league tables is genuine. The new head has set targets, got the staff together and, hey presto, everyone is achieving.
David Blunkett speaks with the voice of working-class self-improvement which has informed Tory populism since Dr Boyson and the Black Papers. The Shadow education secretary made it up the ladder from a council estate so he doesn't understand why everyone else can't do the same. He sends his own children to a relatively poor performer in Sheffield and is pleased the score there has risen from 16 per cent to 25 per cent. The working class isn't thicker than the rest of the population, so if the schools get their targets right, all the people can succeed.
Britain is falling behind because our education system is inferior. The Japanese and Germans are better at arithmetic so their kitchens fit better and their machines are properly calibrated. Not enough children here score good grades or stop on, so we are heading for branch economy status. We must motivate our children and teachers to work harder and reach the national target, 80 per cent above average by the year 2000. What's right-wing about ordinary people doing well at school?
As David Blunkett's analysis is so close to that of the opinion formers who have driven policy for 15 years, it is not surprising that he lacks an intellectual critique of the Tory reforms and is unable to articulate a distinctive position. Labour does not understand why the poor and oppressed aren't making it through the education system and has no idea how to change the pattern.
And yet the deficiencies of the league table approach are obvious. If everyone gets good grades the certificates become worthless. Self-help is fine for individuals and a disaster for everyone else. All achievement is related to an average performance, so it is impossible for 80 per cent to perform above that average. Norm-related measures of attainment cannot provide evidence of standards. Criterion-referenced scales tell us more about their authors than the students' work. Larger numbers can succeed if the pass mark or pass performance is redefined but the likelihood of a sudden leap in literacy or numeracy as a result of government targets is so remote that a sane educator should discount it entirely.
Despite all the make-believe, 80 per cent of educational achievement can be explained by social factors. School performance tables probably chart the social geography of modern England better than any other indicator. If anything, GCSE grades suggest the input rather than the output of a particular school. It is not clear how performance targets help teachers to improve their lessons. Most people are doing their best already.
Before the performance disease caught on, it was often argued that the main problem in British education was our obsession with examinations. We were excluding many less able youngsters by focusing on literary, academic, cognitive forms of knowledge at the expense of the familiar everyday world in which many of them have to live. The GCSE system is not designed for children from less literate homes.
There is no obvious correlation between GCSE syllabuses and the needs of employers and every indication that when a skill is required companies train their workforces appropriately. France and America have high unemployment and de-industrialisation despite their supposedly better stop-on rates.
Despite these obvious points, politicians of all parties press on regardless, escaping responsibility for their mismanagement of the country by blaming schools which are powerless to influence our economic destiny one way or another. "New" Labour may play well on television but without some new thinking it is unlikely to alter our destiny.
Bernard Barker is principal of Stanground College, Peterborough