What a spectacle. At his first prime minister’s question time as leader of the opposition, David Cameron demanded that Tony Blair push forward with the implementation of the education white paper, despite a backbench revolt.
Cameron promised Blair full Tory support — as a rope supports a hanged man.
When Blair introduced his education white paper he promised that it would bring about “irreversible” change. He is right.
It is increasingly clear that Blair’s ambition is to complete the process begun by Margaret Thatcher — the return to a divided education system with grammar schools and secondary moderns, and the privatisation of all public services.
Thatcher’s promotion of market competition between schools, in the name of “parental choice”, is being taken to a higher level.
The white paper proposals would create a dog-eat-dog world of privatised schools. At the heart of the white paper is the proposal to convert schools into “trust schools”.
At present there is some public control over schools — governing bodies include elected parent and staff representatives and local education authorities exercise some control over admissions policies.
For trust schools even this limited public control will end.
Despite the government’s rhetoric of increased “parent power”, trust schools will place parents at the mercy of the second-hand car salesmen and religious fanatics running them.
New Labour’s education policies parallel their policies for the NHS. Local education authorities will in future become “commissioners not providers” of schools.
They will channel our taxes into the hands of unelected bodies — whether businesses or dubious religious groups.
The trusts cannot (at least, for now) make profits directly from school budgets, but they can appoint their cronies at monstrous salaries.
And they can provide profits indirectly to “sponsors”, and their sponsor’s friends, by deciding where the school will buy services — computers, building repairs, agency staff and so on.
The government’s experiment with academy schools, run along these lines, has already proved disastrous.
Academies have been able to expel large numbers of pupils, turn away those living in poverty and hire teachers who share the sponsor’s religious beliefs.
Ofsted school inspectors have already declared one of the first three academies to be failing — so much for privatisation raising standards.
The white paper sets out measures to push more schools in this direction. More will be labelled as “failing” or “cruising” to accelerate their closure and transfer to private ownership.
New Labour’s proposals will, to use the Blairite rhetoric, “raise the bar on under-performance” and will mean more frequent inspections.
Another way to hand schools over to the privateers will be by winning over a simple majority of governors.
It is all too easy for a cabal to take over a school governing body — getting sympathetic parents or staff elected, co-opting a local businessmen — and then calling a vote on the issue.
As if this weren’t enough, any group of parents will be able to set up a new school, even if there are already enough schools in an area.
The local education authority will have a duty to help parents who wish to launch a trust, providing buildings or moving them into a wing of an existing school.
To prevent there being too many surplus places, the education authority will then have to choose which schools to close.
This means that a gang of influential parents can conspire to draw on public money to open a school, and bring about the closure of a neighbourhood school that other parents and pupils rely on.
At first sight, this proposal might appear similar to policies for diverse provision of schools in countries such as Denmark.
However, the white paper makes it clear that not just any group of parents will do — not environmentalists or socialists or a creative arts co-op.
A few Muslim schools might make it through the net, to make the policy appear even handed.
But the government’s legal formula to define “inappropriate” trusts, still to be worked out, will ensure that “diversity” means the fullest possible introduction of the market into education.
Once again this has a Thatcherite pedigree.
In the 1980s, a group of progressive parents in Brighton tried to use the city technology college legislation to establish a publicly funded “Steiner school” — a type of school that seeks to “educate the whole child”. This was quickly disallowed.
Fortunately there is a growing campaign, inside and outside parliament, to stop Labour’s plans becoming legislation.
A revolt by backbench Labour MPs over this issue could potentially be bigger than that against 90-day detentions for terror suspects.
Already 70 Labour MPs have published an alternative white paper. But much wider opposition is needed, including those outside parliament, especially given the Tories support for Blair.
The policies that subordinate education to the needs of big business
The current education white paper can only be understood in the context of a broader policy document published last year, The Five Year Strategy.
Even a simple word count for this document is revealing—“employer” appeared 146 times, “employment” 30 times and “business” 36 times.
The words “creative” and “creativity” each appeared once. “Critical” featured six times, but always meaning “essential” rather than learning to think critically about the world. Only once did the document suggest any purpose for schooling other than employability.
Of course it is important to prepare young people to make a productive contribution to the economy, and it will be in any society, but education should have many other goals besides this.
Schools and colleges should be places where creativity is developed, where we learn to live decently together, to increase our empathy, and to appreciate a cultural heritage so we can re?shape it for our own times.
Schools must create opportunities for young people to question and challenge injustice, racism, war, looming environmental disaster, starvation amid globalised profiteering, poverty at home… and political spin.
The Five Year Strategy condemns the post-war welfare state, and comprehensive schools in particular, as “monolithic”. This really is rewriting history.
It was not until the birth of Thatcher’s national curriculum and testing regime, faithfully continued by Blair, and then New Labour’s increasing stranglehold on teaching methods (through policies such as the Literacy Strategy), that schooling became “monolithic”.
The Five Year Strategy promised a long-awaited relaxation of the curriculum—but in one direction only.
For at least half of 14-16 year olds, it will consist of a vocational diploma plus “functional literacy and numeracy”. The only function of schooling for working class youngsters will be training for work.
The government, in effect, will have lowered the school leaving age to 14. As well as being another form of social selection and discrimination, this robs the most disadvantaged of a chance to develop their scientific knowledge, appreciation of the arts and sense of history. In the words of the radical US historian Howard Zinn, if you learn no history, it’s as if you were born yesterday.
The current white paper is clearly only a part of a bigger (and more global) neo-liberal attack on education. England is, sadly, a trendsetter here, but its young people deserve better.
They need teachers who are no longer dictated to about how to teach, and who can develop an exciting curriculum in consultation with their students. They need a flexible curriculum framework with a balance between social, scientific and cultural learning, not simply skills for work.
They need schools which are more welcoming and where young people feel respected and valued. They need learning which measures up to the awesome challenges of life in the 21st century.
Terry Wrigley, who writes here in a personal capacity, is a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. He is editor of the journal Improving Schools and the author of two books. His new book Another School Is Possible will be published by Bookmarks in 2006. For book information phone Bookmarks on 020 7637 1848