We must applaud the Chancellor's courage

Caroline St John-Brooks

It was in 1981 that Sir Keith Joseph first plunged his knife deep into the education system. He was education secretary in an administration that had a huge popular mandate to reduce public spending. He cut the income of Britain's universities - arguing that a drop in the birth-rate meant that there would be fewer young people in the 1990s, and therefore less demand for higher education.

As a young reporter I attended the press conference at which he explained the impeccable logic of his decision - which he followed up with a startling statement: "Education is a luxury which only rich countries can afford. We are not a rich country." University students at once began sporting badges proclaiming: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." And, for the past 20 years, that is pretty much what we have done. Our population has remained under-educated, politically apathetic, and in thrall to the mass media to a degree unique among European countries. The state of our inner cities is a national disgrace.

Now, at last, the tide has turned. Against a background of rising dissatisfaction with public services, Gordon Brown has found the courage to alert an incredulous populace to the fact that money does not grow on trees. If they want improvements in health and education without further privatisation, they will have to be taxed. And the fairest type of tax is the dreaded income tax.

Four-and-a-half years since the Labour landslide and at last we are focusing on the real issues. Last week, Estelle Morris pledged to fight class inequalities in education. And she doesn't mean "social engineering" (I'm not quite sure what that is, but it's something that every red-blooded Englishman seems to be against.) She knows that now that the Government's reforms aimed at seducing the middle classes are in place, overall attainment can only be raised further by tackling deep-rooted problems of poverty and underachievement.

More than a decade ago, Peter Mortimore, then heading up the Inner London Education Authority, pointed out that raising the performance of the bottom 10 per cent of schools by 25 per cent would have a more marked effect on the overall picture than any other single strategy.

But it can't be done by bullying already-stretched teachers; nor (except in a few cases) by closing and re-opening struggling schools. It means serious money, focused on the children who need it most. You can bet that the 2,000 or so primary schools and the 400 secondaries with the worst results are full of children with multiple problems.

Britain's education system has always been uneven. International studies show enormous discrepancies between the performance of different schools compared with countries such as Sweden or Japan, which do not have our polarised class system.

Nearly two decades of Conservatism created an even wider gap between rich and poor. In 1979, when Mrs Thatcher first came to power, one in seven children was born into poverty. By 1997, the figure was one in three. This is Thatcher's legacy.

The families at the bottom of the heap do not just need financial help. They need better health care, better housing, better nutrition and better policing, Their children need more parks, more libraries, better role models, more hope, more love. Oh, yes, and the best teachers, paid more than the rest for their skills and dedication. Then they'll be able to learn. And the quality of our public life will start to improve at last.

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Caroline St John-Brooks

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