Who's bog standard now?

18th February 2005 at 00:00
Peter Hyman left Tony Blair's strategy team to get a taste of what it's really like in schools. Tim Brighouse is riveted by his account of two worlds apart

1 out of 10: from Downing Street vision to classroom reality By Peter Hyman Vintage pound;7.99

For 10 years, Peter Hyman was Tony Blair's speech writer and strategist. He owns up to coining the phrase "bog standard comprehensive". He is part of the new phenomenon of modern British governments: the tightly knit but relatively large court of unelected political advisers and civil servants who surround the Prime Minister. Two years ago, he threw it all in to become a member of staff at Islington Green school in north London.

As part of a loosely defined brief, he attends meetings of the senior management team. So he has a unique opportunity to compare the leadership styles and practices of headteacher and prime minister, as well as to provide a detailed account of the two contrasting environments.

Incidentally, in quoting Churchill's regret that he did not have the power of a headteacher, Hyman is in no doubt about who has the most power. He also reflects that the prime minister usually has only one go at the job, whereas heads can develop as they move from one position of leadership to another.

With what appears to be refreshing honesty and accuracy, he carries out his task of allowing the reader to feel what it's like to be on the one hand in Number 10 and on the other in an inner-city secondary school. In the main, Peter Hyman thinks well of people and he's loyal. Most of those he encounters, including the staff of Islington Green - even perhaps "the NUT rep, Socialist Workers party activist and media studies teacher" - will be relatively content with his assessment of their doings. Yet he still manages, like a good journalist, to provide a penetrating assessment of what it's like in these two "worlds apart", as one chapter puts it.

Here you'll find a riveting account of the influences on Tony Blair from the moment he becomes leader of the Labour party to the moment Peter Hyman, to the surprise of his boss, leaves the accreditation of the court to join what he calls the real world of an inner-city school. It is the very school, in fact, that Tony Blair allegedly rejected for his own children.

Key among Blair's influences are the strategists (including Hyman himself) and the back-room policy developers sometimes referred to as "policy wonks".

Life seems like an unhealthily long list of meetings: daily morning strategy meetings, including one with Tony Blair to start the week; two weekly early evening reviews of proposals with Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and others; weekly strategy meetings involving, variously, John Prescott, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Campbell and Mandelson. Here you have to read between the lines of Hyman's account, as in the following:

"At their best those meetings powered governments... often, however, the same circular and unresolved arguments come up... Gordon was adamant that by raising the issue of crime we were both fighting on the Tories' agenda and raising expectations that we couldn't ever fulfil. Tony believed with equal passion that unless you empathise and acknowledge the real issue on the street... you seem out of touch and lose people's confidence. These meetings were often a lively conversation between Gordon and Tony with everyone else as spectators." It's easy to draw the conclusion from this that cabinet government is a thing of the past.

Read this book and you'll be in no doubt about the rationale of New Labour: on the side of social justice but exceedingly pragmatic and occasionally impulsive. (For example, Tony Blair has complaints from parents, governors and heads about behaviour in schools and so abruptly reverses a coherent, well-funded attempt to encourage inclusion.) But education is always high on the agenda. Moreover, once Hyman has experienced the reality of Islington Green he's convinced of the need for even more resources. We read of his work in the school's exclusion unit, his efforts at class teaching and his sessions with pupils who need mentoring support. All the accounts have an authentic and emphatic ring to them, especially the one-to-one seminars with Jimmy, on whose complex past and present needs Hyman believes, with justification, that he is having some impact.

What makes the book for me, however, are his reflections on Trevor Averre-Beeson, the head of Islington Green. Mr Averre-Beeson is in his second challenging headship, on the edge of the Packington estate. A high proportion of pupils are eligible for free school meals, and in many cases Sats scores at age 11 are below level 4. He is totally committed, passionate and driven in the way the best urban heads are. His youngest daughter attends the school, surely a convincing testament.

Slowly at first, an achievement culture begins to get a stronger hold on the members of the school community, and the climate changes. Mr Averre-Beeson, occasionally the pragmatist, is inveigled into the route to academy status, but not to select, nor to take on board unwittingly the opinions of his sponsors; he simply wants an overdue new building and better environment more quickly.

At this point Peter Hyman reflects with disappointment on the disgracefully low priority given to London secondary schools, with their mean, cramped, sites and dilapidated building stock, in the first round of "Building Schools for the Future".

He has also become a convert to the need to do something radical about admissions criteria if we are ever to stand the best chance of cracking inner-city cycles of disadvantage. (I could have wished for his support on this matter at the only meeting of the Number 10 court I ever attended.) This book highlights many other areas in which the author's original instincts for what needs to be done in education have been reinforced after being doused in the reality of the classroom. Apart from the irritating lack of an index, it was only slightly marred near the conclusion by a stream of unsupported opinions: some sensible (more investment in early literacy); others simplistic (delaying secondary transfer for underachieving children). But overall this is a gripping and sensitive treatment that will appeal to anybody interested in education or politics.

Tim Brighouse is chief adviser for London schools

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