Will the opposition stand up?

17th December 2004 at 00:00
Nicholas Pyke profiles the Government's most influential critics

The Government is hardly short of critics. From the infant staffroom to the senior common room, they are clamouring to make their views known on education. Supporters of the arts, critics of the market, and opponents of academic selection - all of them are hammering away.

Yet opponents of government policy struggle to get their voices heard, drowned out perhaps by the cacophany inside New Labour's Big Tent. Outside the awning, the Conservatives are languishing and the Lib Dem critique is largely ignored. Instead it takes a leaked memo from Prince Charles, friend to some of the country's most influential columnists, to generate debate.

Increasingly, the real opposition are those with access to television studios and the newspapers, the pundits and the think-tank specialists: here we list the half-dozen commentators heading the queue to cut the guy ropes of Tony Blair's marquee.

Michael Gove

Once dismissed as the voice of pubescent ambition, Michael Gove is now an established act on the circuit of punditry. At the age of just 37 he is assistant editor of The Times, prospective Conservative candidate for the Surrey Heath constituency and a man breathlessly discussed as a future party leader. His views, while scarcely original, command top-end space and air time, from The Spectator to Newsnight. He inveighs against the centralised state, wants greater freedom for schools and parents, and dislikes sex education. "We have learning directed from the centre, thousands of pupils written off, no proper personal incentive to save them, and anonymous establishments where the people who run things don't know your child's name," he complains. "How can the quirky, the eccentric, the individual, the Galileo of tomorrow be cherished in this system which works to deny freedom?" He likens grade inflation to the Weimar Reichsmark.

The solution he advocates is similarly retro: vouchers and the free market for "an irreversible shift of wealth and power into the hands of the working class".

One to watch.

Influence rating***

Chris Woodhead and Melanie Phillips

No voices of educational dissent are more prominent. The former chief inspector and the Daily Mail columnist are not universally in agreement: Mr Woodhead, 58, who enjoys a freewheeling bachelordom, confines his public statements to the dying of the educational light while Miss Phillips, 53, is on the militant wing of the family values movement and her commentary ranges far and wide. But they share a passionate belief that education should return to the methods and values of former years. They blame the romantic culture of the Sixties and Seventies for corrupting the school system and are viscerally opposed to Labour's centralising habits. Both have been regulars at the Highgrove dining table, advising Prince Charles who, as he makes clear in his speeches, shares a good many of their views.

The real source of their influence, though, is through the papers. Mr Woodhead remains one of the most quotable figures in education and advises the Sunday Times, where he has his own weekly column. He has recently fulfilled a long-standing promise to run a private school of his own, threatening to establish a chain. Melanie Phillips meanwhile is becoming one the country's best known polemicists, after a broadcast career which began on BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze.

Neither is sought out by those in government, but in Whitehall their views are noted, discussed and occasionally feared.

Impossible to ignore.

Influence rating *****

Dr Sheila Lawlor

For two decades now, Dr Lawlor, the founder and director of the Politeia think tank, has maintained an energetic schedule of speaking, pamphleteering and appearing on TV with sweeping attacks on the failings of the liberal left.

Education has been a particular target. She deplores the overweening influence of the state, dislikes the national curriculum and targets culture, and blames Whitehall for demoralising teachers.

Dr Lawlor's enthusiasm for the free market remains undimmed, and she is at the forefront of those demanding vouchers. Politeia gave evidence to the inquiry into school admissions by the Commons education select committee - and advocated vouchers, which allow for choice between public and private-sector providers.

Although she no longer has the direct lines to power which in the early Nineties engaged her in helping devise the new Office for Standards in Education inspection system, Dr Lawlor and Politeia draw together an interesting web of academic and political connections at their Charing Cross Road headquarters. Most of their friends have a right-ish feel - a Politeia supper evening is likely to include Tory MPs, Mail columnists and assorted free-market theorists - but not exclusively. Professors David Burghes at Exeter, Alan Smithers at Buckingham and Caroline St John-Brookes, the late editor of The TES, have all contributed to the think tank's educational pamphleteering.

Politeia remains a formidable networking group even if most of its friends are out of power.

Still active behind the scenes. Influence rating **

Ruth Lea

Cometh the examination season, cometh Ruth Lea, the director of the Conservative-leaning Centre for Policy Studies and a leading prophet of grade inflation.

Miss Lea, an economist and one-time journalist with ITN, is unswervingly critical of declining educational standards. She has an attractively clear message about the need for greater "rigour" and is unfailingly available to talk with journalists.

As she explained in a recent article: "Since the mid-1980s, the standards and rigour of secondary school education and examinations have slipped disastrously."

Grade inflation - the proliferation of good grades at GCSE and A-level - is a particular bugbear. She first rose to national prominence as policy director for the Institute of Directors. Then last year she made a surprise move to the CPS. She makes regular appearances on TV and radio, and on the newspaper opinion pages advocating less state intervention and greater freedom for teachers.

Although her advice is not much in demand in government, she has without doubt influenced the perception that modern approaches to teaching are responsible for high rates of illiteracy and innumeracy.

A permanent fixture.

Influence rating ***

Claire Fox

Scarcely a week goes by without an appearance from Claire Fox, founder and director of the Institute of Ideas. A regular on Radio 4's Moral Maze, the former teacher and social worker can also be found on Question Time and the broadsheet opinion pages, where she inveighs against the dead hand of central government, both in education and in other areas of public life.

More of a libertarian than the right-winger she can occasionally seem, Ms Fox is not easy to categorise. Now 44, she started off on the extreme left with the Revolutionary Communist party and its magazine spin-off Living Marxism, subsequently renamed LM.

These days she says that her chief aim is to promote debate, claiming that a modern risk-averse culture is stifling thought and creativity.

Miss Fox and the institute are voracious networkers, unafraid to stage joint events with prominent right-wing groups such as the Adam Smith Institute. Her public profile is bound to rise further.

Skilled controversialist.

Influence rating *

Prince Charles

He can hardly be criticised for a lack of interest. When in the notorious private memo he inveighed against the behaviour of an employee, it was the "child-centred" drift of education that he blamed.

The Prince's summer school for English and history teachers is now in its third year and, as The TES reported recently, he is turning his attention to teacher training.

While his concern has been welcomed, his traditionalist views are more controversial. As his public pronouncements make clear, he thinks schools went to the dogs in the Sixties and Seventies.

There is no doubting his sway. The media are entranced by the summer schools and faithfully report the views of the Prince and his favourite academics, who include conservatively-minded TV dons David Starkey and Niall Ferguson - both critical of the liberal academic establishment. Each summer school has also been attended by senior officials from the Department for Education and Skills.

The Prince is an influential figure in newspaper terms: his friends include Mail columnists Melanie Phillips and Edward Heathcote Amory, and Chris Woodhead, and his gatherings almost amount to a think tank in their own right.

Whether or not Charles, an enthusiastic writer of letters to ministers, has any real effect in Whitehall is a different matter. His stance on trendy education theories was dismissed with the bluntest of public put-downs from the Education Secretary Charles Clarke who described the Prince as old-fashioned and out-of-date.

Has less effect than many claim. Influence rating ***

Robert Whelan

Robert Whelan, 52, deputy director of the Civitas think tank and director of the pressure group Family and Youth Concern, is taking over from Nick Seaton and the Campaign for Real Education as the voice of perturbed traditionalism.

Mr Whelan's views encompass both Christian conservatism and a commitment to the free market. In September he and Civitas launched the New Model School in Queens Park, a residential area of north-west London, offering a cut-price private education with low overheads, substantial parental involvement and a strict discipline policy. It also intends to promote the arts and creativity rather than what he sees as the leaden national curriculum.

"This Government believes in 'education, education, education', but everything just seems to get worse," he told The TES.

With the Family and Youth Concern group, he has been critical of current approaches to sex education and the proposed abolition of smacking: "All parents understand the difference between a little smack given as a means of discipline in a loving relationship, and abuse."

Less politically partisan than the groups that arose under Thatcherism, Civitas is well-connected but not knee-jerk.

Respectable voice of the Moral Right.

Influence rating **

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