Low grade

Excellence in Education: the making of great schools

Cyril Taylor and Conor Ryan <em>David Fulton

Cyril Taylor was Margaret Thatcher's education guru, and Conor Ryan was David Blunkett's adviser when Blunkett was education secretary. So it is no surprise that they prove in this book, entirely to their own satisfaction, that the best people to control schools are people who have demonstrated their worth by making loads of money; that the old Labour notion of comprehensive education was far too uniform a solution; and that all children ought to be forced to wear school uniforms.

Those not convinced by the model of education advocated by the Thatcher and Blair governments apparently fall into two categories: those who think "that all our ills could be cured if we simply turned the clock back by 50 years", and those who think that "nothing has gone right in our education system since schools started to account for themselves to taxpayers and parents". The cheapest of all debating methods is to set up absurd proposals and then knock them down, and in this case the tactic enables Taylor and Ryan to retort with magisterial gravitas: "We believe both views to be mistaken." The reader is left to ponder the profound sensibleness of the authors and the backward-looking foolishness of anyone who questions their wisdom.

They begin by establishing that good schools need good heads and good teachers. I can sign up to that. But swiftly the book elides from this to the statement that "many of the most improved schools in the country have specialist status". Given that Sir Cyril (knighted by Maggie Thatcher for services to education) runs the Specialist Schools Trust, the government quango set up to promote such schools, and Ryan was at Blunkett's side to support them, the only surprise is that this claim is not made until page nine.

It is a claim that has some truth - and there is a good reason for it, a reason not acknowledged in this book. Specialist schools get extra money. All they have to do is prove that they can raise £50,000 from other sources - preferably business - and the government will give them additional money from the public purse. I have spoken to several headteachers who say privately that the only reason they went down the specialist route was that, otherwise, the government was going to starve their school of money and leave it to rot.

As for school uniforms, they apparently create a sense of community and prevent competitive dressing. Actually, they do neither. They enable cash-strapped schools to do commercial deals with one supplier, which can then charge what it likes. Uniforms thus become so expensive that their cost keeps out pupils from the poorest families. According to Ryan and Taylor, uniforms also make it easier to spot children absent from school in neighbouring streets, and this I am sure is true. It is a symbol of how bitterly we have grown to hate our children that we want to force them to wear their convicts' uniforms every day, so that we can spot them if they are anywhere other than where they should be.

My son's teachers used to write long letters to me about how the length of his hair was a symbol of something or other. My daughter once went to school without a coat on a freezing cold day, because we could find only a dark blue one, and she had got into trouble because it was not black. I am sure there are more useful tasks for overstretched teachers than policing school uniforms.

Francis Beckett's most recent book, with David Hencke, is The Blairs and Their Court (Aurum Press)