Is Tony Blair a Tory on education?

NS Labour conference 2004 - Is there anything at all left-wing about the government's approach to sc

People used to call Tony Blair a hypocrite because he shunned sending his children to the local schools. His sons Euan and Nicky went to the London Oratory, where the headmaster selects by interviewing the prospective pupil, together with both parents. Blair also hired tutors from the posh Westminster public school in a vain attempt to get Euan into Oxford.

Now, as his daughter Kathryn starts at the London Oratory's sixth form, I can refute the charge of hypocrisy. It was levelled in complete ignorance of Blair's views on education, and the education policies his government would pursue. In those far-off days, we thought we knew the difference between the Labour and Tory approaches to education.

We - the left - disliked fee-charging schools, believing that they gave an unfair advantage to the rich, while Conservatives liked them. Jack Straw, when he was shadow education secretary, told us, with every appearance of reluctance, that we could not abolish them or remove their charitable status; but at least, he said, we could make state schools "so good that only a fool or a snob would want to pay".

We wanted non-selective schools, so that the best would be available to everyone. Selective schools overwhelmingly selected middle-class pupils. Conservatives wanted, as John Major put it, "a grammar school in every town" - and, though they tended not to mention the point, a secondary modern in every town for those children who could not get into the grammar school.

We thought education was best run by the public sector, while the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s tried to hand as much as possible of it to commercial companies.

We saw a rounded education as a right of citizenship. The idea that only a minority of children should have it, and the rest should be taught such skills as were required to keep the wheels of commerce running, was one of the consequences of Conservatism that distressed us. We saw lifelong learning as a way of refreshing people intellectually. They saw it as a way of reskilling the workforce.

We were delighted that Britain offered free university education, remembering the days when only the rich got higher education. Neil Kinnock asked why he was the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to go to university. If free higher education was financially impossible, we would have accepted Charles Clarke's preferred option of a graduate tax. But the Conservatives, had they won in 1997, would certainly have introduced tuition fees.

By 1998, the year after the election, the plates were shifting. New Labour's education ministers found £1.2m to give to fee-charging schools. In return, the schools would sprinkle some private sector gold dust over neighbouring state schools, or share facilities such as playing fields and musical instruments. The then schools standards minister, Estelle Morris, trotted off dutifully to Jersey to tell the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, the club of top public schools: "I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise the profile of state/independent partnerships, and specifically the role that independent schools can have in helping us improve school standards."

The money went to the likes of Wells Cathedral School (fees £17,295) for "holding workshops with St George Community School" and to Britain's poshest Catholic public school, Ampleforth (fees £20,520). Today's schools standards minister, David Miliband, is trying to persuade fee-charging schools to accept much bigger lumps of government money to set up city academies. The government also announced a few years ago that fee-charging schools would be exempt from the attentions of the standards watchdog Ofsted: the Independent Schools Inspectorate, which fee-charging schools employ and control, would do.

When Labour came in, there were 165 grammar schools that were allowed to select their pupils, forcing neighbouring institutions to take only those children the grammar schools did not wish to teach. Opportunities for local people to hold ballots on whether selection should continue were promised. But when the legislation came, we found that the whole thing was rigged in favour of the continuation of selection. Today, there are still 165 grammar schools. And a much higher proportion of children than before are attending them.

That is not all. Faith schools are, in effect, allowed to select. Blair's choice for his children, the Catholic London Oratory, selects by interview to assess "Catholicity, practice and commitment and whether the aims, attitudes, values and expectations of the parents and the boy are in harmony with those of the school". Specialist schools and city academies, among others, are also allowed to select 10 per cent of their intake on "aptitude" (which is the same as selecting on ability). These schools - especially the city academies - get much more public money than their non-selective neighbours. Ministers point out that many do not use their power to select. So why give it to them in the first place? The answer is that it symbolises the belief that the best is not for everyone.

There has been a headlong rush to hand as much as possible of our state education system over to the private sector to own, control and run. The latest and biggest scheme for doing this has been to revive the Conservative idea of city technology colleges and rebrand them as city academies. These schools have access to several times as much public money as ordinary schools. However, where the Conservatives founded only 15 CTCs, Labour plans 200 city academies. The only important difference is that under the Conservatives, the company gained control of a school by putting up roughly a fifth of the capital cost (and none of the running costs). Labour has made it a lot cheaper than that, by chucking in a lot more taxpayers' money.

As for the idea that lifelong learning ought to be about personal development, and not just about learning to grease the wheels of commerce, this came off second-best in a collision with the juggernaut that ministers call, in the best new Labour speak, the "skills agenda". Research from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education shows that in 1996, 12 per cent of 65- to 74-year-olds (who don't usually want to acquire skills) were learning, mostly just for fun. Today, it is 8 per cent.

Professor John Benyon, director of lifelong learning at Leicester University, says that new Labour started out in 1998 talking about how education made us a civilised society and promoted active citizenship. "That's all been lost," he says. "The idea of enriching individuals has gone." He quotes the latest official documents he has received. Lifelong learning, they say, "enables us to refocus resources in response to core business needs". The aim is "to create a high-skilled specialised workforce". New proposals for 14-19 education are designed to move the less academic children swiftly into classes where they learn useful skills.

Labour ministers rightly pointed out that it was a laughable hypocrisy for the Tory party to oppose their proposal to levy tuition fees, because it was a Tory idea. Yet even the Conservatives had not thought of differential tuition fees, allowing the poshest universities to charge higher fees, so that their students would mostly come from families that could afford to subsidise them.

Seeing their traditional ground overrun by new Labour, the Tories have had to retreat to the wilder shores of right-wing extremism. Is new Labour paying fee-charging schools to help state schools? Then the Tories must help them more, by promising to pay for the brightest state-school pupils to go to fee-charging schools. Is new Labour part-privatising education? Then the Tories must privatise it more or less completely. Is new Labour allowing more schools to select? Then the Tories must have even more selection. Is new Labour making it easier for the best-funded schools to expel pupils? Then the Tories must make it easier still - and not worry about the educational underclass that will be created.

We waited 18 years for this Labour government, but what it has achieved on education is to push the debate further to the right than at any time since the Second World War. If the Tories had been in office for the past seven years, they would have done much the same things. But at least we could still hope for something better.

The Blairs and their Court by Francis Beckett and David Hencke is published on 30 September (Aurum Press, £18.99)