Mr Blair, let the teachers get on with teaching

24th January 1997 at 00:00
Just how serious is Tony Blair's commitment to education? He tells us that it is "his passion" and that his three priorities are "education, education and education". The first legislation of the next parliament, if a Labour government is elected, will be an education Bill.

Heady stuff, but exactly what does he want to do? Statutory homework, abolishing assisted places and renaming grant-maintained schools hardly amount to an educational renaissance. There seems a wide gulf between the promise and the policies.

Three possible explanations come to mind. The one which I would like to be true is that what is before us is merely camouflage. The two main political parties in the recent past have become adept at stealing each other's education clothes. Tony Blair must fear that if he reveals his key ideas too soon they could turn up in the Conservative manifesto. It could be that he is keeping them back, rather like a tabloid protecting exclusives by reserving them for the later editions.

If it is camouflage it is pretty effective. But there are less charitable explanations. Tony Blair's apparent concern with education is a displacement activity. Leaders have to make speeches and give interviews. Too real a problem or too detailed a course of action and you risk dissent.

By focusing on education in general terms Tony Blair is able to avoid addressing the urgent, but potentially divisive, issues of the day, like Britain in Europe. Education is a particularly convenient patsy because it can be presented as the answer to another pressing problem, how is Britain going to pay its way in the world when to tackle this issue would require some difficult and controversial decisions?

But there is another explanation which is more unsettling. Perhaps Tony Blair is a would-be educational visionary without a vision. He senses something is wrong and feels called to speak, but does not know what to say. Instead of genuine solutions all he has is an assortment of ideas hoovered up by his advisers as they tour the country.

If the Labour leader is short of a strategy, I can offer three suggestions. Recognise that recent administrations have already made most of the important changes that needed to be made in the separate parts of the system. What has not been done, however, is to ensure that they fit together. Primary schools still don't adequately prepare all pupils for secondary education, GCSEs and A-levels belong to different systems, higher education has been expanded without taking into account the changes in schools, and further education has been cast adrift in an uncertain market. The opportunity is there to make a real difference by creating a coherent whole.

To get an optimally functioning system would, however, entail facing up to how it was going to be paid for, and that is something Tony Blair seems disinclined to do. All we have been told is that he is thinking of moving around some relatively small sums from, for example, assisted places and nursery vouchers, and putting faith in the George Brown fallacy that economic growth will make all things possible. To get education running properly substantial new money will have to be found. Otherwise we will continue to get situations like that in school technology where the ends have been willed but not the means, and what is taught is what can be afforded rather than what was intended.

If Tony Blair does have a real passion for education, then he should have the courage to stand up and tell us where the money is going to come from. The likelihood, as the Liberal Democrats have been honest enough to admit, is that it will mean higher taxes. His willingness to do something that is right but could prove electorally unpopular is the ultimate test of his conviction.

My third suggestion is also difficult for a politician. We will never get a good education system until we learn to trust the professionalism of teachers. We have in this country potentially some of the most able, dedicated and hardworking teachers in the world. But they are being driven into the ground - as the TES's own surveys have shown - by meddling, reform seemingly for reform's sake and by having to comply with ever more bureaucracy. However necessary some of the changes may have been, change itself has become the problem.

I would urge Tony Blair to announce that his master plan for education would be to give coherence to the piecemeal reforms of the past decade, to fund the system appropriately and then to let it run without interference for at least the rest of the parliament. Let the teachers get on with teaching. Let the necessary adjustments come from within - after all we do now have financial delegation, a national curriculum, tests and inspections.

Which then is nearest the truth - camouflage, displacement or lack of a big idea? I hope it is the first, I suspect it is the second and I fear it may be the third. With the manifestos due any time, we shall soon know.

Alan Smithers is professor of policy research and director of the centre for education and employment research at Brunel University

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