Newly powerful, newly pragmatic

21st March 1997 at 00:00
In the week in which the general election date was declared officially, Susan Young reports on the two major parties' attitudes towards education, and what the Conservatives said and did during their 18 years in power.

If a week is a long time in politics, then 18 years is an eternity. Four successive Conservative terms in Downing Street mean that a handful of May's new voters have lived under no other party and a whole generation can remember no other administration.

Such a long period of unbroken government - unprecedented in postwar times - has left Britain unrecognisable in many ways, with public services such as education and health transformed.

With 18 years of more or less absolute power and an agenda for radical change, the Conservatives have been able to exercise many of their old prejudices and acquire some entirely new ones. Labour, meanwhile, has endured a long march of revisionism as internal battles for control of the powerless People's party have led to policy pragmatism.

The result has been a transformation of the educational landscape, both physically and intellectually as the parties steal and adapt each other's favourite clothes. It has been a very long road to the 1997 manifestos. Eighteen years ago, council-run comprehensives were where able pupils took O-levels and others the CSE. Grammars were waning. Higher education meant universities for the brightest and polytechnics for the rest, on a full grant.

Now the GCSE follows the national curriculum, schools largely or entirely manage themselves, and there are annual tests, league tables, and nursery vouchers.

A trawl through the archives highlights some interesting trends among policymakers. Both Labour and the Tories were fascinated by the core curriculum, debate about which began well before 1979, but it took the enveloping passion of Kenneth Baker to turn it into the behemoth it became - and industrial action and a dose of pragmatism to make it workable.

A dominant theme of Conservative thinking has been the apparently contradictory desire for more central control (the curriculum, grant-maintained schools) coupled with market forces and parental power. Vouchers have been an endless source of tussle between Left and Right, popping up like vampires long after their apparent death.

Labour was preoccupied with gifted children, homework, nursery provision and home-school contracts years before the Blair-Blunkett axis took control, and well in advance of the Conservatives.

Starting from the radical position of wanting to ban public schools, pay all school-leavers in education and training and spend money on buildings, equipment and teachers, party policy has come to approve tweaked versions of many Conservative innovations. The line has been softened on grammars and GM schools, league tables and testing, so that after 18 years of unfettered experimentation on both sides, Labour policy sounds like the Conservatives with a social conscience.

Interestingly, Labour is more radical on student grants, endorsing a repayable loan without waiting for this summer's independent report commissioned to get the two parties out of trouble on an electorally sensitive issue.

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