The third way emerges;Opinion

20th March 1998 at 00:00
Gordon Brown's budget is good news for education. Sensitive to charges that they were not fulfilling their election pledges on class size, the Government has released pound;100 million for schools.

As a result, infant classes will be reduced to 30 more quickly, as the new classrooms which will be needed can now be built. Outside lavatories in 600 primary schools and heating systems are also due to be modernised. The number of education action zones is to be increased from five to 25 by January 1999- at a cost of a further pound;10m. Controversial this policy may be, but schools in the areas which put together successful bids will benefit to the tune of pound;500,000 per zone.

But teachers in deprived areas may find the greatest benefit will be from money which is not going to be spent on education at all. It is a truism to say that poverty is associated with poor school performance, and teachers have often expressed anger when performance indicators such as league tables and OFSTED reports did not seem adequately to take this into account. Parents under stress, poor housing and its associated health problems, criminal subcultures and a sense of hopelessness all make children difficult to educate, and can undermine teachers' best efforts.

Much has been made recently of New Labour's "third way" - neither Old Labour's stifling statism, nor the ruthless free-for-all encouraged by Thatcherism. Until this Budget, the "third way" seemed mysterious, if not downright illusory. But now it is beginning to emerge. Recently, doubts as to whether Tony Blair is really any more than a young Margaret Thatcher in drag have been more widely expressed than ever before - especially among inner-city teachers, disillusioned and depressed by the regular batterings they feel they still receive as they toil away among the underclass.

But it is hard to imagine this Budget coming from any Conservative administration. In its emphasis on the necessity for work, the Government is really talking about inclusion. The vicious "devil-take the hindmost" philosophy of the Thatcher years has been consigned to history. The dispossessed and the excluded are now being given the opportunity join the mainstream of society - by being given not just encouragement but concrete help in getting work.

This means that the pound;100m to be spent on improving people's work-skills is a crucial part of the whole strategy - not only because moving off welfare into work does wonders for people's incomes, but because it also improves their self-respect and gives a structure to their lives.

More and more, education policy is revealed as part of an overall jigsaw of ideas aimed at transforming society - and vice versa. Many of the social and economic measures announced last Tuesday are likely to have spin-off benefits for education. Strategies to tackle child poverty - such as raising child benefit and the new working families tax credit, ought to result in fewer stressed and poverty-stricken families bringing up hard-to-teach children.

Gradually, the number of children and young people who live in families wholly dependent on benefit will be reduced. What's more, encouraging people off the dole queue and into work could transform the culture of those doomed housing estates, where high unemployment is endemic, and young people barely come into contact with any adults (apart from teachers, youth workers, and shopkeepers) who have jobs.

All these measures should bring hope to the inner cities, and make it easier for teachers to do their jobs. But - as Nigel de Gruchy of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers rightly pointed out - how come the Government couldn't find pound;100m last month to give the teachers their full pay award instead of phasing it, when this week Gordon Brown has magicked an extra pound;250 million out of his Chancellor's top hat?

The Government seems to be tackling education issues from almost every angle which does not involve raising the pay of teachers. Could it be that attacking poverty will prove to be a more effective way of improving educational performance than making teachers feel good about themselves and their jobs?

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