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Will the ostrich continue to triumph over the lion?

In his Ruskin College lecture last month, Tony Blair spoke of four components of successful education reform. They were "good policy", "the engagement of the teaching profession", "investment" and "strong leadership from the centre". This means that education "should be a leading office of state". At present, however, it is "seen as a bit of a backwater by both civil servants and politicians". When Kenneth Baker moved to the Department of Education and Science from Environment in 1986, he is said memorably to have described it as "like moving from the manager's job at Arsenal to Charlton".

The average length of time in office for ministers of education since the First World War has been less than two years. They have been seen, Blair suggested, as "politicians either on their way up or on their way out". In some cases indeed - that of John Patten springs to mind - their fleeting tenure was a merciful release. Yet it is clear that coherent policy-making requires a much longer period of engagement with the education service. Blair promised therefore that his ministers would be expected "to take responsibility for seeing a strategy through and to take the credit too if they succeed".

Blair might also have mentioned the rapid turnover of senior civil servants in recent years. In the past eight years, there have been four Permanent Secretaries at the DESDFEE. Yet stability in the administration is no less important than ministerial continuity. In the past, administrative reorganisation has all too often been a substitute for good policy.

Tony Blair raised in his lecture profound and difficult questions about our education system, and in particular about the reasons for under-achievement and low aspirations. They are the same sorts of questions that James Callaghan asked in his own Ruskin lecture more than 20 years ago. These questions have indeed been asked by British politicians since the time of Joseph Chamberlain nearly 100 years ago. Is there any reason to believe that Blair's answers will prove any more successful than those of previous politicians who have sought to engage with the problem?

The difficulty faced by all educational reformers until the 1980s was that they found it impossible to secure any grip on the education system, responsibility for which was divided between local education authorities and schools. Some of the Conservative reforms, in particular, the national curriculum, to which Blair pays handsome tribute, and the introduction of performance indicators, have, however, made it more possible to secure a national education policy than at any time in British history. There is no longer any "secret garden" in the education world which politicians are debarred from entering.

In politics, however, solutions always give rise to further problems. The main anxiety now worrying educationists is not so much how to get a grip on a pluralistic education system, but how to generate enthusiasm amongst parents and teachers for the improvement of educational standards. The best teachers, it used to be said, are those who are least interfered with. The best parents, similarly, are those who are willing to accept their responsibilities without needing to be browbeaten by ministers. The best schools are likely to be the product of local enthusiasm, not of nannying by central government.

Blair, in his Ruskin speech, emphasised the continuing role of local education authorities. He is far from sharing the views of the market-orientated Right that we can do without LEAs entirely. A world which consisted solely of grant-maintained schools facing the Leviathan of the state, mediated by a funding agency, would be a grim one indeed. Yet many of Blair's proposals do involve further monitoring of local education authorities. That perhaps is inevitable. Yet it is bound to raise qualms for those sensitive to the history of educational policy in Britain.

There has, for at least the past hundred years, been a tension between two strands of thought in education. The first is the idea of "national efficiency" pioneered by Joseph Chamberlain and Lord Rosebery at the beginning of the century. That requires, as its protagonists have always recognised, greater intervention by central government. Recalcitrant institutions and individuals need be swept away by a reforming broom. The second strand which owes a good deal to the strength of the Nonconformist conscience, has always, by contrast, stressed the dangers which centralisation poses to diversity, to that experimentation upon which progress depends, and to freedom itself.

On the whole, until recently at least, it has been the Nonconformist strand, nourished by a certain scepticism towards government, which has triumphed in our educational policy. In Britain at least, the ostrich has always triumphed over the lion.

In the harsh competitive world of the 1990s, there is no room any longer, it might be thought, for the ostrich. Yet, alongside its proposals for greater national efficiency in education, Labour is also promising, as part of its constitutional reform package, widespread devolution of power. This would begin with the establishment of a Parliament with legislative powers in Scotland, a Senedd in Wales and a strategic authority for London. It could be followed by the creation of regional authorities in the rest of England.

Education, obviously, would be one of the functions most suitable for devolution. Yet devolution is only of value if it allows for greater diversity. There would be no point in setting up regional authorities simply to replicate the policy of central government.

To what extent, however, is there scope for diversity in educational policy, and to what extent would such diversity conflict with the national policies needed for educational revival? These are very difficult questions and it cannot be said that Labour has yet confronted them. Nor of course have the other parties. The trouble is that, as soon as one does begin to confront them, one gets a bit frightened by the roar of the lion and begins to appreciate that perhaps there is something to be said for the friendly old ostrich after all.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University. His book on constitutional reform, Power and the People will be published by Gollancz later this year.

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