Now is the time to make visions work

9th May 1997 at 01:00
The day after the 1997 election was so sunny, it was tempting to believe that the weather, too, would always be better under Labour. And the sunny national mood has persisted into the new administration's first week. After 18 years of uncongenial policies, strenuously resisted, the education world can allow itself some rejoicing.

Before the election, it was fashionable to suggest that Labour under Tony Blair would be little different from the Tories. One week later, it is hard to hold this view any more. The new Government has hit the ground running, and - so far as education is concerned at any rate - it looks as if detailed plans were laid some time ago. What appeared at the time to be a policy vacuum turns out to have been a sophisticated case of keeping one's powder very dry indeed.

A master-stroke has been the decision not to dismantle everything that went before. New governments of both parties have in the past been pitchforked into an orgy of unpicking previous policies as a result of various noble manifesto commitments. Labour was much criticised before the election for jettisoning some of its ideological baggage, and deciding to keep "what works".

As David Hargreaves points out, some aspects of the Conservative education legacy deserve to be retained; and one result of David Blunkett's pragmatism in this area is that he is now free to concentrat e on his priorities for change and improvement instead of being side-tracked into fruitless hassles over, for example, grammar schools.

His commitment to standards, not structures, is an attempt to redirect the pattern of change established over the last 50 years. When in doubt as to how to achieve higher standards, governments - whether Tory or Labour - traditionally reorganise the schools. In the event, Britain's deeply-rooted class system has repeatedly confounded the best efforts of the policy-makers. Whatever the type of school, working-class children still underachieve. By calling a halt to this structural pendulum, Blunkett has not only enabled his team to focus on more significant elements which may affect achievement, but has neatly skirted the hot issue of selection at the same time.

As Blunkett and his team well realise, the next step is to get the teachers on their side. He is looking for a national effort on behalf of education, withholding scepticism in the interests of the young. Offering a new deal - we'll listen to what you want if you promise to do your stuff for us - is a start; keeping the energy and commitment going after the euphoria fades away may be a hard task, though. The morale of most people depends on their status and pay, as well as exhortation and being patted on the back, and teachers are no exception.

What's more, it is clear that unconditional back-patting will not be on the agenda. The letter which Blunkett will be sending to schools goes out in a bracing climate already established by the installation of Michael Barber as head of a revamped standards and effectiveness unit. And they mean business: the unit has already had a meeting with ministers, something which reportedly had never happened before in its previous incarnatio n.

Blunkett may succeed in his aim of generating a "can do" culture in the schools, since this government's current combination of passion and focus is unique in British politics. But perhaps this will turn out to be a unique generation. "Sixties people" can be broadly defined as those born during the ten years after the war. In 1960, they were aged between five and 15. Between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles' first LP, they were aged between eight and 18. When that formative decade ended they were between 14 and 24. Now they are aged between 42 and 52; the average age of current members of parliament is now 49; the average age of the new members is 44. If the sixties generation could ever be said to have achieved the levers of power, it is now.

Some may argue that Blair himself seems more like a seventies man - although no-one who in his youth evidently spent many glorious hours imitating Mick Jagger can claim to have been wholly unaffected by the culture of the 1960s. But, more important, is the effect of the values of that decade, and what followed.

The 1960s was a time of innocence, blithe experimentation and self-indulgence. But the seeds were sown for cultural shifts which have irrevocably changed British society. The legacy of those years includes the new universities and feminism - the fruits of which are to be seen today in the enormous improvement in the academic performance of girls. This is a real achievement, which we should now be celebrating. The justifiable anxiety which many in education - including David Blunkett - now feel concerning the under-achievem ent of working class boys has far more to do with persistent male unemployment and the loss of a satisfactory adult role, than with the performance of their female classmates.

Anti-racism, social justice, a youth culture which transcended class - all of these have roots in the 1960s. Of course, Blair knows better than to try and sell the idea of a classless society; in spite of the social changes of the last 30 years, such notions are still wishful thinking. But the current composition of the House of Commons shows that age-old structures are opening up. And it is only by taking the fact of a class-based society seriously that we can attempt to mitigate its effects. The new Education Action Zones show that social justice is back on the agenda once more.

The British have problems in educating some of their young because, as a society, we really do value autonomy and independen ce, and encouraging young people to think for themselves. So it is not surprising that we find it difficult to process them all to an adequately high standard, so that all young people acquire the skills they need to lead a productive and satisfying life. Countries with more authoritarian traditions have the opposite problem.

One way or another, we need to pull off the trick of getting the best of both worlds- and this will not be possible without the teachers. Somehow, the innovative energy and enthusiasm for which British teachers were renowned needs to be rekindled. But perhaps we also need to rethink the whole notion of professionalism. Teachers in this country seem to associate it mainly with autonomy - the freedom they believe is enjoyed by the members of other professions. But in other countries, most of which have a long-standing national curriculum, teacher professionalism seems to be more related to pedagogical skills - making sure that their pupils are learning what society has decreed. Such an approach does, in many ways, go against the grain of British culture. But the issue cannot remain undebated.

We know that many of the dreams of the 1960s ended in tears in the 1970s. In the 1980s, some hard lessons were learned - not least by the Labour party. Visions, as many headteachers well know, are made real through hard thought, planning and good management. The new Government has an exceptional inheritance. When most of them were young, the culture was one of passion and hope, which was tempered by bitter experience and then a cooler focus as they matured. Now is the time for those lessons to be put into practice, as the baby boomers come into their own. They are grown up now. If they can't make it work, no one can.

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