Whose birthright?

15th September 1995 at 01:00
John Major has long nursed an ambition to be seen as the "Prime Minister for Education". In an interview in The Times last month he also looked forward to the day when all publicly-funded schools would be grant-maintained. In the event, though his speech this week to the massed faithful of the GM movement in Birmingham undoubtedly contained some meat, it can hardly have fully satisfied his audience of GM enthusiasts, let alone anyone sceptical that opting-out is a necessary prerequisite for raising standards in schools or that you give more choice to parents by giving greater powers to heads and governing bodies.

As the speech of a champion for education, it started well, aspiring to "making British children the best educated in the world". Quite apart from his formal powers, when the Prime Minister speaks he can wield enormous influence over the aspirations of parents, pupils and teachers. In the end, it is their attitudes that will determine whether a new culture of high attainment and enthusiasm for lifetime-learning for all roots out the class-ridden elitism, low expectations and failure endemic in too much of our public education service.

It is, then, an important act of leadership when John Major affirms that a broad education is "the birthright of every . . . child", not the "private property of a limited social elite". His assertion that "Our children are made of the same clay, have the same hopes, the same potential and the same rights"could have been truly inspirational. Unfortunately, it was immediately contradicted by the rest of his speech.

Mr Major offered his own criteria for assessing his proposals: "I am only interested in changes which improve the quality of education, provide new opportunity for children and expand choice for parents." How then, do they measure up against quality, opportunity and choice?

Many of the Government's reforms are undoubtedly improving quality by encouraging schools to raise expectations and pupil attainments. But the Prime Minister's attachment to external examinations covering a fixed body of knowledge looks curiously rigid against his assertion that broad education is about awakening curiosity and opening up lifelong interests. He pointed out that raising standards in schools is one of the main functions of local education authorities. But how will they do that if all schools opt out? Indeed, who will do that if all schools opt out? Clearly not the Office for Standards in Education, which has yet to show it can even manage all the inspections in its remit.

So how will making all schools GM improve quality? That seems to hinge on the PM's claim that the "liberating effect of independence within the state sector" means better results. There is no evidence for that, and even if there were, is liberation what schools will experience if they are coerced into opting out? As far as opportunity and choice are concerned, by promising GM schools more "freedom to make sensible choices between pupils" and a fast track for church schools to opt out, the Prime Minister has put beyond all doubt that it is schools rather than parents who are to have greater choice. Though many GM schools remain true to a comprehensive ethos, it is inevitable that social and academic selection will return with a vengeance if individual schools are left to decide their own admissions criteria.

Allowing church schools to opt out without a parental ballot is wholly at odds with the original concept that parents should choose. The suggestion that the governors would have "the prime interests of the parents at heart" has a curiously patriarchal ring to it - and a false one. Aided schools do not even have to have the complement of parent governors required in county schools.

Mr Major's big education speech had more to do with leadership of his party than of the country; with the struggle to win the next election rather than coherent administration of schools. It is difficult to see who it is likely to impress, however; certainly not parents wary that selection will exclude their children. Those Conservative supporters who want what they see as a culture of mediocrity in local authority comprehensives swept away by excellence-inducing competition will see it as mostly half measures, willing the ends but lacking the nerve to legislate the means. Labour, split by Tony Blair's volte face on GM, will be suitably discomforted. But possibly not as much as Gillian Shephard. If there is clear blue water anywhere, it is between Mr Major and her department.

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