Skip to main content

Through the hoops to the top rung

Labour education spokesman David Blunkett talks to about his belief in improvement via high expectations.

David Blunkett is a traditionalist in educational terms, and proud of it. He believes that calculators have become an unwelcome substitute for brains, leading to growing innumeracy among schoolchildren. He believes in discipline, solid mental arithmetic, learning to read and write accurately - and plenty of homework.

Not only is he a traditionalist. He is also, in his own words, a fundamentalist and a conservative. He regards himself as "Left-wing and radical on economic policy but conservative on social matters I the very reverse of the attitudes and actions of the Labour party throughout the Eighties and early Nineties".

His emphasis on the basics in education is consistent with his views on strong communities and the traditional family. He has a strong attachment to his three teenage sons, whom he sees each weekend (he has had an amicable divorce).

His commitment to what he calls "the values of community", already sketched out in his proposal for a citizen's service of public-spirited volunteers, designed for young people, and "a clear identity on social policy", appear to have earned him the trust of the Labour leader Tony Blair, who seems set to confer on him the enlarged brief of education and employment spokesman.

Despite Mr Blair's controversial decision to send his son, Euan, to a grant-maintained school, which put an early strain on his new education spokesman's loyalty, the two men largely agree on education, in particular on the need to tackle under-achievement and take a tough line on school standards.

Last week's leaked memorandum from Gillian Shephard's office which warned that the Tories were in danger of losing the initiative on education rounds off a bruising but good year for Mr Blunkett. Even the thought of a battle royal at next month's party conference (over his decision not to force GM schools back into local authority control) fails to upset his apparent equanimity. He is even looking forward to it.

His traditionalist views on education, no less than his refusal to hand powers devolved to schools back to the town halls, have puzzled many of his supporters on the Labour soft Left, where he has long been something of a hero. There have been predictable mutterings that he has "sold out", become a reactionary.

Yet he believes the plans he hopes to implement as Education Secretary in two years' time will be both radical and far-reaching, attacking under-achievement, particularly in the inner cities.

Achievement, and disadvantage, are words that bring genuine conviction from a man who has succeeded against odds which would have defeated most people.

Blind from birth and born into a poor, working-class family, he spent his schooldays in a succession of special boarding schools at a time when only grammar-school pupils gained qualifications. His ticket to university, an early career as a further education teacher, his radical leadership of Sheffield city council, and his election to Parliament in 1987, were achieved despite his schooling rather than because of it.

His early life and struggles to cope with his blindness, his unhappiness at boarding school, his difficulty as a teenager in forming relationships and his driving determination to overcome his disability, are all set out in his autobiography, published today. Having missed out on what he somewhat contemptuously calls the Swinging Sixties, because he was studying at night school in order to acquire the grounding and qualifications denied to him as a boarder, he is understandably keen to ensure others are given a sound education and maximum encouragement to achieve.

Mr Blunkett readily agrees his own struggle to achieve success has shaped his traditionalist views.Giving children the basic tools which will enable them to earn a living, as well as help them survive as a citizen, is as important as a liberal education, he says.

His experience in the 1960s at the Royal Normal College at Rowton Castle, a boarding secondary school for blind children in Shropshire, has strongly influenced him.

"The head had this philosophy that exams were either constraining or were not appropriate for blind children. It was total hypocrisy on his part because he'd got a PhD, and he got his job because of the qualifications he had. And it struck me it didn't matter how much I knew about current affairs and general studies - and I did; in that sense we had a liberal education. If I couldn't actually get myself into college or university then I'd not been done a favour; I'd been trapped by not having a foothold on that ladder.

"It doesn't matter how much people criticised the ladder, it doesn't matter how much they say we are expecting children to jump through hoops, we have to broaden the education system at the same time as giving people the equipment to get up that ladder, through the hoops. Because it's middle-class patronage otherwise. And all the people who preach about these matters tend to be ones who have benefited most from the education system."

While much has changed since the 1960s, underachievement remains a huge problem, he says. Putting extra money into schools to combat disadvantage may help, but raising expectations was crucial. Up to a third of today's schoolchildren were being let down by a combination of demoralisation and turmoil, the result of Government policy and "a culture of low expectations" among teachers.

Instead of saying too much was being asked of their pupils and turning resentfully on those who want higher achievement to be delivered, (such as Mr Blunkett himself) teachers in inner-city schools should join forces with him to find ways of overcoming the real difficulties they face.

"What I've found when I meet teachers is a slight worry. They are concerned that I am saying things which, wrongly interpreted, could be seen as critical of teachers who are struggling to do a good job. I'm not. I'm talking about how we can develop a revolution in our education service. But it does mean we have got to have a partnership and it means we have got to set aside this debilitating demoralisation that some people still feel.

"I understand why they feel it, they have had a hell of a time over the past decade, but we need to be optimistic because education can deliver both economic prosperity and social cohesion if we get it right."

Mr Blunkett is proud of his time in local government when as a Sheffield and South Yorkshire county councillor he played a prominent part in setting up the country's first cheap-fares policy for public transport. As a young councillor in the 1970s he supported the city council's decision to create school governing bodies, the first local education authority to do so. He believes strongly, he says, in participative democracy and wants to do much more to involve parents and the community in schools.

But after 16 years of Tory rule he believes local government is in crisis, undermined on the one hand by privatisation and the other by the transference of power to Whitehall. There is now, he says, a reluctance to participate in local democracy which is deeply damaging.

New participatory forms of politics are needed, which recognise that the world has changed. The introduction of locally managed schools handing power to governing bodies means the relationship between schools and LEAs has changed dramatically. In future LEAs will have to engage with parents and the wider community, encouraging active involvement.

To those critics who believe such a policy leaves little real role for local councillors, Mr Blunkett points to LEAs being able to draw up three-year development plans, in partnership with schools, setting out agreed objectives, and giving advice and support to help schools reach their goals.

Where necessary, they would have powers to highlight and do something about failure, acting not in a dictatorial way but "as a major sister of support".

"I think that is very positive and does allow a framework . . . The school is responsible for delivering the service and heads are paid to lead and manage it. To say we'll pay you to lead and manage but then we'll take away the final responsibility is an abrogation which doesn't work. It allows people to avoid having to address themselves what they're going to do about it."

Mr Blunkett is frustrated that, because John Major chose to announce his "back-me-or-sack-me" challenge to Tory MPs on the day Labour unveiled its controversial plans for a new framework of community, aided and foundation schools, he has not yet been able to convince the sceptics in his party.

Further minefields await, notably on admissions policy and a further and higher education policy, likely to lead to acommitment to a graduate tax. A document on standards and school effectiveness will be published before Christmas.

With such a busy schedule, it's hard to imagine how a blind man, forced to rely on Braille transcripts and tape recorders, can find the time to write an autobiography. Perhaps, despite the obvious human interest appeal of the story of how he became the first blind man to make it onto the Front Benches (enlivened by numerous anecdotes about his faithful guide dogs), there is an element of political calculation behind his decision to rush into print while still in mid-career. David Blunkett is, after all, an ambitious man.


At the age of 12, David Blunkett was judged to be unsuitable to go to the country's only grammar school for blind boys, and instead was given a place at the Royal Normal College at Rowton Castle, Shropshire.

His final primary school report, by F Tooze, headmaster at Manchester Road School for the Blind, Sheffield. read: David's intelligence quotient was assessed at 104 on December 9, 1958 using the Williams' Test. The psychologist said he was a boy of undoubted average intelligence with a vocabulary associated with a higher intelligence quotient.

"David is a very co-operative, conscientious, hard-working boy. He takes a very serious attitude towards work which is shared by his parents. This standard of attainment is good for this school, and I am certain he is the right type of boy to succeed where hard work and application are required. His desire to make the best of himself is rather remarkable. He is certainly worth a trial at the Royal Normal College. He is a strong, well-built boy, well adjusted to his blindness, mobile and active."

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you