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We are still recovering from the lean years

At last, a breath of fresh air. David Miliband's call for big investment in education has come not a moment too soon.

And it shows courage. A new and untried minister, he has taken the earliest opportunity to push the education agenda forward in the direction that he thinks it should go. It's about time it was acknowledged that our persistent demand for better public services without paying higher taxes is simply childish. Since 1997 it has led to all sorts of government contortions in education, such as wasting precious time - and political capital - trying to get private money into schools through education action zones.

Kenneth Baker, bruised by his efforts to set up more than a handful of city technology colleges, could have told the Government that it was on a hiding to nothing. Even he, great fixer as he was, had to resort to gongs to get some of his colleges.

And Mr Miliband is no voice in the wilderness. This change of tack clearly has Treasury backing. Even Peter Mandelson, chief apostle of the Third Way, is recommending heavy investment in education. He sees it as the "key to social mobility". Interestingly, recent research shows that we are now less socially mobile than during the 1960s and 1970s - the growth years of the middle classes. We're stuck in a fixed hierarchy, with the privileged entrenching their position at the top of the pile.

Academics at the London School of Economics suggested this week that rather than fretting about the underclass we should be concerned about a small but growing "overclass", which is cutting itself off from mainstream society in a far more marked fashion. Of course, one of the ways well-off families do this is through education.

Not only can they buy their way out, but our state system, in comparison with other industrialised countries, is uniquely polarised. The gap between the best and the worst schools is huge, and Mr Miliband is right to emphasise that many of our secondary schools have a long way to go.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, has pointed out that increasing numbers of parents are opting for the far better-funded private sector. State schools will have to make a huge leap forward if they are to keep pace with people's aspirations.

The trump cards held by the independent schools are small classes and effective discipline - which result in top exam results. But as a result of catastrophic teacher shortages, state schools will find both of these increasingly hard to deliver if Mr Hart's pound;73 billion is not forthcoming.

Peter Mandelson caught the headlines this week by asserting "We are all Thatcherites now," and citing Mrs T's economic prudence. I beg to differ.

That "wicked woman" - as Jack Straw called her when she resigned - ran down our public services to a level where they now need the most colossal amount of money to bring them up to the level of other European countries. Nothing very prudent about that. She never understood the economic importance of top-class schooling for all, just as she never grasped (unlike the Japanese) that even a full-blooded capitalist society needs an efficient public transport system.

She treated education as a rationed private good for which families must compete. In spite of the extra money put in since 1997, we still have barely begun to repair the deep-seated damage wreaked by the starvation rations of the Thatcher years. But maybe now we will - and in time for the next election.

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