New Labour should abandon its market-oriented approach to schooling, argues Claire Fox
Does anyone know what New Labour's educational philosophy is? Before someone from the Department for Education drowns me in sound-bites and jargon, yes I know all about diversity, aptitude and choice.
There's certainly plenty of choice: take your pick from specialist schools, city academies, training schools, CTCs, beacon schools and now a cadre of advanced schools.
It's ironic that when New Labour was in opposition and throughout its first term, the mantra was "standards not structures". Now all there seems to be are "structures". Everyone gets hot under the collar about types of schools and yet the philosophy behind the Government's approach to education is anybody's guess.
Every month, new ideas are floated - more exams, fewer exams, vocational GCSEs, fewer AS levels - adding up to a bewildering array of disjointed ideas conspicuous for their lack of educational vision.
Whether it was 1870, 1902 or 1944, Education Acts were accompanied by raging debates about epistemology, the relationship between schooling and society, technology and progress, the meaning of curriculums, vocations versus academia, etc. There were clear commitments to expand access to literacy and knowledge. The structures of schooling were only a reflection of a philosophy, not the end point.
When the comprehensive system was launched 40 years ago, it was an expression of a bigger idea. It represented an ideological assault on the iniquity of selection.
But who knows what great philosophy lies behind the present morass of educational initiatives. Policy seems declaratory - about creating impressions rather than creating a new ethos, with no clear commitment to anything in particular, except pragmatism and political opportunism.
New Labour's obsession with education does not come from a vision of what schools should be about. Its main motivation appears to be to woo the electorate, court parents as consumers and keep everyone happy. Tony Blair's enthusiasm for faith schools at first looked like a principled stance: religion as an organising principle. But it soon became apparent that the Government was simply keen to meet parental demand.
And it is parental choice that seems to be the organising principle behind the rejection of the alleged "one size fits all" comprehensive. The Big Idea amounts to a variation of consumer choice. Education, therefore, has been put on a par with Supermarket Sweep.
The "on your knees, avoid the fees" consumer approach to places has ended up with religious schools being advised to be more inclusive, admitting children regardless of their beliefs.
Even pupils are being rebranded as mini consumers: choose your own curriculum, whichever suits you. The idea of an "individualised" curriculum may play well to the market model of choice. But surely the primary function of school is to expose pupils to many ideas. The basis for pupils'
selections should not be individual preferences, but the expert judgment of those able to evaluate their cultural significance and educational value.
With a specialised curriculum, students will receive a narrower, fragmented form of schooling. A broad and balanced formal curriculum would let them develop their general knowledge and generic reasoning skills.
Most heads "dash for cash", with little commitment to their spurious choice of specialism. When I asked one why his school was going for sports as its special status, he wryly observed that I was missing the point. Of course he didn't believe that the kids in his community were particularly gifted in athletics or football, but it was a way of getting extra capital and funds for two extra teachers. Parents are similarly cynical about the educational virtues of "difference" "aptitude" and "choice" - they simply want a school with a good reputation and extra resources.
While I sympathise, there is a danger of sacrificing a serious discussion on what education should really be about. It is easy to forget that what is taught matters as much as where it is taught.
Emmanuel City Technology College in Gateshead can proudly boast of its beacon status and commendation by inspectors despite its pupils being taught creationism. As Tony Blair explained in the Commons: "In the end, it is a more diverse school system that will deliver better results for our children and if you look at the actual results of this school, I think you will find they are very good."
New Labour's approach risks losing sight of the profound social and cultural commitment that education should represent. We no longer know or debate what education is for, just what type of schools we should have. Notions such as knowledge for its own sake or an aspiration to share with future generations the best that has been known or taught, all are drowning in a sea of instrumental pragmatism.
It is time to put educational philosophy back on society's curriculum.
Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas and a regular panellist on 'The Moral Maze' on Radio 4.