Back to basics

One Out of Ten

Peter Hyman <em>Vintage, 392pp, £7.99</em>

ISBN 0099477475

I'm surprised the Prime Minister has not missed Peter Hyman more since he left his post as head of the Downing Street strategic communications unit in autumn 2003. By his own account, Hyman was responsible for (among other things) new Labour's 1997 pledge card and for the infamous "grid" that choreographed, in minute detail, all announcements and appearances by ministers.

Then there is the small matter of the "bog-standard comprehensive", another of Hyman's contributions to the political landscape of the past decade. Some might see it as the ultimate irony - or even punishment - that the man who coined the phrase went to work in just such a school, albeit for a relatively short time.

That phrase, and how it was perceived, became the perfect symbol of the contrasting worlds of the No 10 policy wonk and the lowly classroom assistant at Islington Green, an inner-city comprehensive school in London. The Prime Minister condemned "bog-standard" as over the top but, according to Hyman, privately felt that it offered "some definition". In best wonk-speak, Hyman argues that it was the most "distinct definition" of schools the government had ever achieved. It is unclear quite what that means, although presumably the phrase was meant to highlight the failure of comprehensive schools to embody a high-quality, one-size-fits-all approach to secondary education.

Yet the reality was always more complex. Few comprehensives (outside London anyway) went in for a totally ideological approach on issues such as mixed-ability teaching. Many struggled, just as Islington Green has done in recent years, to achieve the "ideal" mix of pupils learning alongside each other despite different abilities. Without a critical mass of pupils and parents who believe in the value of education, teachers always face an uphill battle. Another problem, again well illustrated by Islington Green, is the disorganised and dishevelled lives of many pupils, making meaningful learning impossible.

Hyman shows how the rarefied realm of Westminster political strategists has little impact on the lives of front-line staff, except as a source of irritation. Touchingly, he comes to recognise how hard change is in practice. In a phrase that should be pinned up on the walls of everyone who works outside schools (including inspectors), he admits that "real delivery is about the grind, not just the grand".

Yet doing the right things, day in and day out, is not the stuff of headlines. And this is the real problem. Politicians promise to deliver on things over which they have little direct control, whether it is test results in schools, waiting lists in hospitals or trains arriving on time.

It is hardly surprising that, as Hyman plaintively reflects, "delivery proved harder than any of us imagined". That in turn necessitated frenetic activity at the centre, when what really works, as he came to realise at Islington Green, is relentless consistency: school leaders who believe that children should succeed, and teachers who plan meticulously and teach pacy lessons that sweep the youngsters along. It is what good schools have always done and it is what the specialist schools movement is, properly, trying to achieve.

This is where Hyman comes into his own. For whatever kind of strategist he might have been, he has identified, with ruthless clarity, what is most important for youngsters in inner-city schools, in fact all schools. Forget "education, education, education" and instead go for "literacy, literacy, literacy". As Hyman illustrates in a moving account of his struggles with a bright 14-year-old who lacks basic literacy skills, you might as well pack up and go home if the basics have not been covered - which is, in fact, what many do.

It is also interesting that Hyman now strongly advocates additional spending on education. As he rightly points out, there has been huge and sustained investment in school buildings. Perhaps against the better instincts of his former political masters, however, he argues passionately for even more money to spend on inner-city schools, even if that might be at the expense of other priorities, not least appealing to middle-class voters.

This is no old-style, old Labour spending, either. For many youngsters in inner-city schools, Hyman points out, more personal attention might make the difference between success and failure. There is a big gulf between government rhetoric and what needs to be done in practice to change children's lives.

After the high politics and the high drama of urban schooling, a sobering thought remains. Hyman's biggest concern on his first day at Islington Green was not whether he would be able to cope with disruptive youngsters or would be liked by the staff. More than anything else, he did not want to look like an Ofsted inspector. Touche.

David Bell is the chief inspector of schools