In his book 1 out of 10, Peter Hyman, the Blair aide who left Number 10 to become a teacher, lists 15 plans, projects or strategies that his school was supposed to tackle all at the same time. Which, he asks, are meant to take priority? Health or "citizenship action"? Behaviour or "leadership improvement"? Homework or "work-related action"?
As Mr Hyman learned, heads and teachers in England spend too long responding to ministerial initiatives and, in particular, bidding for pots of money to do things they are already doing, or planning to do anyway. The Government, he concluded, should provide the hardware (funding, buildings, the qualifications framework) and help design the operating system (diversity, parental choice), while leaving the software (teaching and learning) to schools.
Sounds good, but it won't happen. As the Gordon Brown era begins in Westminster, Labour and the Tories are arguing over the merits of setting versus streaming. Mr Brown has promised to stamp out bullying and improve behaviour. He wants "a personal learning guide or coach" (is this the same as a tutor?) for every pupil, a business partner for every school, after-school tuition, "rigour in teaching methods", communication and teamwork skills, and good manners.
Some may find it encouraging that the youthful Ed Balls has been appointed to the new Department for Children, Schools and Families south of the border. Alas, it is Mr Balls's first cabinet post, so he will want to get himself mentioned in the papers. I don't see him keeping his hands off the software. Rather, the scope of his departmental brief suggests he will be the minister for poking his nose into everybody's business.
Politicians have abdicated responsibility for most areas that used to preoccupy them. They no longer set exchange or interest rates. They do not tell banks how much they can lend, limit the amount of money we can take abroad or set tariffs and quotas on imports. They no longer run utilities such as gas, electricity and telephones. They play no role in industrial relations. Instead, they micromanage public services: education, health and policing dominate the political psychodrama in the way the pound once did.
While calls for greater regulation of supermarkets and private equity firms go unheeded, Mr Brown enlists their bosses to join his new National Council for Educational Excellence, so they can "play a bigger part in support of our schools". In other words, they can tell schools what to do, while they are only restrained, if at all, by "voluntary codes".
Mr Brown has a good sense of educational priorities. He knows he needs to do more for the bottom 40 per cent funding, encouragement and a common diploma for 14 to 18-year-olds. But what we'll get are targets, tests, action programmes and bundles of fivers for anyone who signs up to a minister's latest bright idea.
Politicians can thus appear usefully occupied, control the news agenda and take credit for any success. In hoping for something better, Mr Hyman forgot the lessons he learned at Number 10.
Peter Wilby is a former editor of the New Statesman