When the tools aren't up to the job

Observations on education

A Consultation Toolkit has come my way. It is produced for Labour activists by the party, and concerns the schools white paper, published by Ruth Kelly in October, on which the upcoming Education Bill will be based. I must say I was agog to know what a consultation toolkit might be. Would it, I asked myself, include a consultation screwdriver with which to mend a consultation plug after my consultation lights had gone out? Sadly, no. It is only a briefing paper with handy tips on how to organise a consultation meeting, should I be minded to do so. Tip one is "work out who you want to invite". Good idea. Tip two: "Plan the agenda." Very wise.

The toolkit also contains a summary of the white paper and possible answers to questions that might be raised in this meeting I might be about to organise, questions such as: "Why do schools need more reform?" and "Why do we need trust schools?" If that is the level of questions my consultation throws up, this toolkit should be more than adequate for the job.

The trouble is, I fear, that if you do as the toolkit suggests and hold a meeting to which local Labour members are invited - or teachers, governors and people like that - you may come upon awkward buggers who know about the education system and have more testing questions to put to you.

For instance, someone might ask: "If trust schools are such a great idea, why were they not mentioned in the manifesto on which Labour fought last year's election?" To which the answer is, er, the toolkit does not cover this particular point.

Question: the white paper encourages parents to found schools, with government help, which is likely to speed up the spread of faith schools; does Labour want more faith schools? Answer: I scour the toolkit in vain for any mention of faith schools.

Question: the white paper wants more of a buyer's market for secondary-school places, but buyer's markets work when supply exceeds demand; has the Treasury agreed to put up the money to create excess capacity in the state system? Answer: ask Gordon when he gets back off paternity leave.

Question: what about places where the number of children is falling; if some schools are given free rein to expand, will that not force other good schools to close? Answer: the toolkit does not cover this.

I wouldn't want to discourage

anyone from organising a public meeting on school reform, but I do urge organisers, if their intention is to defend the white paper, to be better tooled up than this toolkit suggests.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Why British men are rapists