3 MAY 1997, Page 20


James Hanson says a Blair government would hand over more of education to the vet), people who have harmed it

ONE of the more surprising aspects of this campaign has been the role education has played or, to be precise, has not played. There has been no analysis of exactly what the opposition parties would do to improve matters. They only give the impression that they have some magic spell with which to improve education's current parlous state.

Considering it is New Labour's 'number one priority', the silence from them on this vital subject has been deafening. The Lib- eral Democrats would donate an extra £2 billion a year to education, paid for, they say, by raising income tax by one penny. We know that the Tories are already doing plenty about it, where they are not stymied by Labour-controlled local councils.

It is common ground among the elec- torate and all political parties that stan- dards in the state sector desperately need improvement. If it does something about it, this would be a big change for Labour, which for decades has defended state edu- cation uncritically and to the hilt.

Until recently, anyone daring to suggest all was not well — in the terms we now hear regularly from Mr Blunkett and his leader — was immediately branded a right-wing extremist. The three pillars of the socialist system — local authority con- trol, child-centred primary schools and comprehensive secondaries — were sacro- sanct. The only thing wrong with state edu- cation was that it was 'underfunded'.

Only the Liberal Democrats see funding as an issue. This reveals a fundamental misunderstanding: however much money you throw at the providers of education standards will not improve without a wholesale change of attitude by them. Standards will never improve as long as education is seen in terms of play and applied child psychology or as social engi- neering aimed at producing an egalitarian society: the policy of the lowest common denominator.

These fallacies have been deeply entrenched in Britain's way of thinking about education for too long. We must return to the notion that what our children need and deserve from their schooling is, first, mastery of the basics of arithmetic, reading and writing, something shockingly lacking in the young coming into industry, for example.

After that, the need is for a disciplined initiation into the best that has been thought and written in the sciences and humanities and the wherewithal to get a decent job when they leave school. All parents are desperate for that.

Is New Labour or the Conservative party more likely to change that out-of- date way of thinking to produce a system of which we can be proud? The Tories have made significant steps forward by introducing a national curriculum focused on the above basics and specifying the core content every child should be taught.

In primary schools this has already led to a revolution in practice, for the better. National tests in basics are there at ages 7, 11 and 14. There are performance tables at key points allowing, for the first time, public scrutiny of the achievements of every school in the land.

Then there is the assisted places scheme which introduces a measure of selection into the state system and gives poorer chil- dren a chance of education at top schools. The old domination of town hall ideo- logues and bureaucrats has mercifully been reduced through opting out and local management of schools.

The Tories have boldly reformed inspec- tion, which previously was a non-event, and appointed a chief inspector prepared, for the first time in living memory to tell the truth in plain English and to ask funda- I don't remember it, so maybe I was there.' mental questions about teaching methods.

As a result, teacher training is being reformed, and a curriculum for trainee teachers introduced to ensure that they themselves are equipped to teach the basics rather than some half-baked idiocies promulgated by modish professors more concerned with their own psychological and sociological dogmas than with the true interests of our children, the youngsters of Britain who are so vitally needed to take us forward into the future.

All these reforms have been bitterly resisted by the educational establishment and the vast majority of Labour local and national parliamentarians. Despite Labour's current rhetoric and half-hearted acceptance of some of these improvements, there is no mention in its manifesto of the national curriculum, of national tests, of independent inspection of schools and teachers, or of league tables.

What we find instead is an emphatic rejection of selection, while the Tories talk of a return to grammar schools. Labour proposes to abolish assisted places schemes, right next to a rejection of what the manifesto calls the 'educational apartheid' of the private/public distinction. It would make a crucial change to the admission arrangements of opted-out schools to turn them into neighbourhood schools (making it impossible for young Master Blair to go to the London Oratory). And it promises to reduce the size of infant school classes, which will have no effect if the attitude of infant teachers stays the same as it has for the past 30 years.

Above all, in New Labour's manifesto and related policy statements there is a crucial role for local education authorities to bring about school improvement. The very people who have for so long held back state education will be given wide-ranging power to set targets in schools, to identify failure, to close schools and, in left-wing socialist jargon, to offer 'advice and sup- port'.

Tony Blair may have introduced 'New' to `Labour' but he clearly has no stomach to challenge its educational bureaucracy. Its monopoly of the supply and type of educa- tion in the state sector will be maintained along with all the special-needs, race and sex lunacies on which they concentrate.

The absence of any reference to the national curriculum, to national tests, to independent inspections and to league tables in its manifesto is not a New Labour coincidence. These are needed urgently to raise standards for our children. Rather than building on Tory reforms, they will be undermined as they have in the past. Don't be deceived by talk of 'zero tolerance'. A vote for Labour will bring back the compla- cent consensus which has failed so many of our children for so long.

Lord Hanson has been a backbench Conser- vative member of the House of Lords since 1983.