Will the elitists triumph yet again?
Here is a marvellous illustration of what Professor Ted Wragg called the Piccadilly Circus theory of educational change: if you wait there long enough, every idea will come round again. In the 1950s, we had the colleges of advanced technology (CATs), with aims more or less identical to those for the new technology institutes. By the 1960s, they had become universities: Bradford, Brunel, Aston, Bath and so on.
They were the first instances of "academic drift". The British believe that any kind of education that teaches you actually to do something - install plumbing, design a computer program, cook a meal, produce a radio programme - must be second-rate. Everybody aspires to something more high-falutin, like a "conversation between the generations" as former chief inspector Chris Woodhead, borrowing from philosopher Michael Oakeshott, calls it.
So CATs gradually turned practical subjects into more theoretical ones, to give them greater respectability. Technical-level courses became degree-level courses. The numbers who studied part-time on day release dwindled. After a while, everybody thought that what the CATs were doing was much the same thing as universities, and it seemed unfair not to give them university status. So universities they became.
Then it started all over again. The polytechnics were invented. Polys would be different from, but not inferior to, universities. When I edited a higher education guide for the Sunday Times in the early 1980s, I had a long and acrimonious exchange with the movers and shakers of the polytechnic world. They would have nothing to do, theysaid, with something called "The Good University Guide", or even a "Good University and Polytechnic Guide". There should be a separate polytechnic guide. Universities were backward-looking and elitist; to associate with them in any way would dilute the polytechnics' unique character.
Less than a decade later, the polytechnics were offered the chance to call themselves universities. Every single one took the opportunity, falling over themselves for grandiosity of title. Birmingham Polytechnic became the University of Central England, Central London Poly the University of Westminster. By that stage, one of them boasted the biggest philosophy department in the UK, another an international reputation for cultural studies.
Yet, the country is still short of competent technicians, the people below professional and managerial level who make things actually work. This is why we have so much trouble running railways.
We must give David Blunkett credit for trying yet again, but I am not optimistic about the outcome. Nor am I optimistic about his proposals for vocational pathways in schools that will be as rigorous and prestigious as the conventional A-level route. Here, too, is a history of failed initiatives, from the technical schools of the 1944 Education Act to the Tories' Technical and Vocational Education Initiative.
English class consciousness runs deep, even in the 21st century. That is the agenda behind Chris Woodhead's denunciation of Blunkett as a man whose vision of education is "depressing, narrow and utterly misguided". What he means is that Blunkett isn't posh enough. He clawed his way up through night school and day release; Woodhead is just another middle-class boy, educated through grammar school and a university arts course.
Our education system has long been run in the interests of people like Woodhead. It should be run for people like Blunkett.
Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman