Time to slow down for reflection;Opinion

8th May 1998 at 01:00
THE OTHER day, a prominent New Labour figure asked me: "What should we do next?" "Nothing," I replied.

But wouldn't the press and public then say that we had run out of ideas and momentum, that we had given up on the battle to raise standards?

My reply was that the press would naturally say such things because it needs news of initiatives, action plans, task forces, naming and shaming in order to fill the ever-expanding acres of newspaper space.

Journalists will always advise governments to act, just as lawyers will always advise clients to sue. The belief that there is any significant demand among ordinary citizens for government action, however, is an illusion confined to politicians. Do elderly couples in Barnsley, for example, sigh to one another over the bedtime cocoa: "Another day without any initiatives from Mr Blunkett. It's too bad he's run out of momentum"? I think not.

The greatest education secretary of the past 15 years, in my opinion, was John MacGregor (1989-90). He did almost nothing, allowing schools a precious breathing space after the frenetic activity of Kenneth Baker. I wrote a piece in The Independent, headlined "Carry on being boring, Mr MacGregor". So I would now say: "Start being boring, Mr Blunkett." In at least three areas, his initiatives need time to take effect and to bed down.

First, education action zones. I remain suspicious of the belief that the private sector can provide magic solutions. Nevertheless, the zones deserve at least an agnostic response because they create a framework for trying something different. In the 1970s, the maintained sector could accommodate Rhodes Boyson's Highbury Grove (uniforms, rigid discipline, Latin), Tim McMullen's Countesthorpe (jeans, pupil council, social studies) and all varieties between. Whatever you thought of Boyson or McMullen, you could hardly complain about lack of diversity.

Now, one school is much like another. If the zones can restore a sense of adventure and enterprise to education we should welcome them. If they can also act as a device for raising teacher pay and morale in the inner cities, so much the better.

Second, specialist schools. Just as the teachers' unions may be right to see the action zones as nothing more than an attempt to get schooling on the cheap, so Lord Hattersley, Peter Mortimore and others may be right to see the specialist school as just old-style selection by another name. But in neither case do I think this the inevitable outcome.

Grammar schools select for academic ability and then prepare pupils for middle-class professional and managerial careers. To select a small proportion for aptitude in sport, music, languages or technology is an entirely different matter. A musically talented child may well be frustrated in an ordinary comprehensive, because there are not enough like-minded pupils to form a choir or orchestra. I accept the validity of the counter-argument: that neighbouring schools will be even more musically impoverished because the best pupils and teachers are creamed off, but I prefer to see how things work out in practice.

Third, the literacy and numeracy hours. These still strike me as an extraordinary intervention into teaching methods by central government. Yet if the effect is to raise the standards of the low achievers, then I must accept that the end justifies the authoritarian means.

If these policies go wrong, the results will be catastrophic. The flight of both teachers and parents from inner-city schools will become a stampede; the comprehensive system will be fatally wounded; primary schools will turn out illiterates and innumerates in unprecedented numbers. That is why Mr Blunkett should concentrate on their implementation and keep further initiatives to a minimum.

This is my final TES column before I start editing the New Statesman. My teacher friends wanted me to devote it to Mr Woodhead's recent speech about wasting time to the Politeia think tank. Sorry, but I don't need to tell anybody what to think about that.

I do have one final question, though. Is Mr Woodhead objecting to the Greek temples or to the kitchen rolls? Au revoir, and thank you for reading.

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