Look outwards

18th April 1997 at 01:00
It is fashionable to opine that Labour and Conservative policies on education are so similar as to be virtually identical. But this week, Tony Blair has resurrected a political credo which many thought dead and gone - buried during the Thatcher years with a stake through its heart. Now the spirit of social justice is stirring again - though not in the policies of the Conservatives, which aim to increase selection by ability, and intensify the competition between individual schools.

Education, says Blair, is social justice. His vision is of a Britain in which "we develop the talents of all, with no one left out, no potential left unused". And this week he revealed a 21 point plan which, he believes, will move us towards this goal. A key element in the strategy is Education Action Zones, which will target new money on inner city areas to help them raise standards in their schools.

But there is a long shadow over this bright vision of the future. It is cast by the teachers - who will have to make it a reality, and who remain resolutely unconvinced. As NASUWT's opinion poll shows, support for Labour's education policies has slumped from 43 per cent in 1992, to 29 per cent today. The latest results from the TES focus groups show teachers expecting "more of the same" if Labour gets in. Morale in the schools, we are told, is lower than ever before; cynicism is rife.

Why is this? Gillian Shephard says that her greatest regret is that in the end she did not succeed in getting the teachers on board. Given the policies she has had to pursue, this is not surprising. But David Blunkett seems to find wooing a suspicious profession equally tricky.

Mr Blunkett's problems probably stem from three factors, which have combined to create the impression of a party which has embraced Conservative thinking on education: Labour's refusal to commit itself to increased taxation in order to fund educational improvements; its reluctance to scrap the 160 remaining grammar schools without the consent of local parents; and the decisions by Tony Blair and Harriet Harman to send their children to grant-maintained schools.

Taking the last factor first, a dose of realism is in order. The BlairHarman decision on their children's secondary schooling certainly disappointed many who are committed to locally-managed education - but notwithstanding John Major's accusations of hypocrisy, they chose the Oratory for religious reasons and in spite of, rather than because of, its opted-out status. Both politicians went to independent schools themselves, but are educating their children in the state sector. This may not seem like a giant stride towards equality, but - as Tony Blair points out - if he gets to No 10 he will be the first British prime minister of either party to educate his children in state schools.

The remaining two factors are different aspects of the same problem: fear of failure. Labour, haunted by 1992, is terrified of scaring the voters. So, the party is hedging its bets on selection not because members really believe in it, but because a commitment to scrap grammar schools and hand the GM schools back to the local education authorities would look like a dirigiste party riding roughshod over individual rights for the sake of its own inflexible dogma - exactly the impression which the last two years have been devoted to erasing.

The refusal to commit taxes, similarly, aims to avoid a repeat of 1992. Paddy Ashdown may be winning applause for being upfront on his proposals for taxing and spending; twice as many of our focus teachers praised Liberal Democrat policies as praised those of Labour. But the NASUWT poll suggests that few of these plaudits will be translated into votes.

Meanwhile, what is to be done about the teachers? What will improve their morale, unlock the commitment and creativity for which British teachers used to be famed, and encourage them to look outwards - instead of inwards, mulling over the mistakes and injustices of the past?

A real commitment to consultation and a more public recognition of their undoubted achievements would help - but teachers need to play their part as well. If they are to participate in the nation's conversation with itself over how we should educate our children, they need to accept that society's agenda for education may not be the same as theirs, and to enter the debate with a willingness to learn and in a spirit of open self-evaluation. Education will be unable to play its part in the construction of a fairer Britain if the teachers cannot recapture the sense of energy and optimism they once had.

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