Retro reforms of Lord Zoffis

20th May 2005 at 01:00
Do you want the good news or the bad news?

The good news is that Tony Zoffis, (the mysterious and invisible adviser who dreams up harebrained schemes for the Prime Minister in "Tony's office") has finally been smoked out.

The bad news is that he has been made Lord Zoffis of Bedlam and given a job as a minister of education.

For years Andrew Adonis, or Andrew Bloody Adonis, to give him his full name, was able to generate barmy ideas for the Prime Minister without having to stand up in parliament, be quizzed by Jeremy Paxman, or defend his policies at national conferences.

When the AS and A2-levels were first introduced, there was complete mayhem, with some candidates taking five exams in a single day. A few even stayed overnight at a teacher's house for security reasons, because they had to delay taking yet another paper until the following day.

While the education system creaked and lurched along the edge of a very steep cliff, Tony Zoffis was assiduously peddling a third A-level, the Advanced Extension exam, the so-called world-class test for 17-year-olds.

If it had actually taken off, and most schools sensibly avoided it, the whole exam system would have collapsed, through timetable chaos and lack of examiners.

Now he will at least have to speak in the House of Lords, where there are some smart people to cross question him. Whether or not King Henry VIII ever tapped a piece of beef with his sword and said "Arise Sir Loyne" is disputed, but if a monarch can knight his dinner, then a prime minister might as well ennoble his butler.

Defenders of the move say: "Ah, but he's only a junior minister," as if Lord Zoffis will be responsible for nothing more than school dinners and litter in the playground.

Come off it. He might as well be the 25th car park attendant from the left.

The job title is irrelevant. Since he has the ear of the Prime Minister, he will effectively be in charge. My advice to Ruth Kelly is to lay in a decent supply of boot polish, so she can shine his shoes every day.

Actually there is a solution. She must do what a teacher I knew years ago did with any known unruly pupil at the very beginning of the school year.

She should walk into the first ministerial meeting and say: "Stand up, Zoffis. Sit down, Zoffis. Stand up again, Zoffis. Now repeat these words in a loud clear voice: 'You are the master. I am the slave'".

What is worrying about the elevation of Lord Zoffis is some of the policies likely to ensue. The agenda will be paraded as "radical reform", but it will in fact be backward looking. Over the years we have moved from an elite to a mass system of education. The signs are that we are moving back again to an elite-driven model.

In schools there is a clear hier-archy, with lavish high-fee private schools at the top and bogstandard schools at the bottom. The ZoffisBlair axis favours palatial city academies for the few and, in higher education, unregulated top-up fees, allowing elite universities to charge pound;10,000 to Pounds 15,000 a year.

It sounds a silly question, but does more choice actually mean more choice? It does for some, usually the most powerful. But the market approach to education, introduced by the Conservatives and avidly sponsored by Zoffis and his sidekick, can end up offering less choice.

At present barely 70 per cent of London parents get their first choice of secondary school. In some boroughs it is as little as 50 per cent. Yet in 1983, when the Inner London Education Authority ran a banding system to even up the ability range in schools, nearly 90 per cent got their first choice.

It sounds a paradox, but more choice can mean less choice. When schools become more and more unequal through market forces, choice can actually decline.

Drive schools further apart and the gap between them eventually becomes huge.

The ZoffisBlair philosophy is divisive and extremist, neither Labour's fair opportunities for all, nor Disraeli's one nation Conservatism.

So will Labour MPs revolt at all this subversion? Nah, no chance whatsoever.

Of course there will be huffing and puffing, as there was about top-up fees, but revolution? What's that? Simply the world going round. Another treble please, landlord.

The Prime Minister stood outside Downing Street the day after the election and said, humbly, that he had learned his lesson. Then he went straight inside and created Lord Zoffis. If children in school "learned their lesson" in the same way, they would all get a grade Z in their exams.

Two men. Two nations. Two fingers.

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