Keep that man out of my school!

Education - Tony Blair's reforms are an intellectually incoherent ragbag that will do little to addr

So David Willetts says he finds "something very exciting" about the government's plans for education. The Tory shadow education secretary must have been reading a different white paper from the one I have seen. It is undeniable that the Education Bill has sparked a debate around schools quite unlike anything we have seen since Labour came to power. For that we should be grateful. But there is not much in the substance of the government's new bill to set the pulse racing. This is an intellectually incoherent ragbag that will do little to address the real problem it is designed to tackle: the educational underachievement of the most disadvantaged children in our society.

The Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, was right to say that this bill is entirely consistent with the reforms carried out by the Blair government since 1997, as it's consistent with the Conservative reforms that came before. The neutering of local education authorities, an increased role for the private sector, the fragmentation of the comprehensive system in the name of parental choice: there is nothing new here. As one senior loyalist backbencher in a northern seat told me: "This is all very well, but it will do nothing to improve the lives of my constituents."

It is impossible to predict the scale of the rebellion this bill will provoke. We know that roughly a hundred Labour backbenchers have already expressed their disquiet. More serious for Blair's future authority is the number of MPs who will vote for the government with a heavy heart. It is difficult to find a single Labour MP, inside or outside the cabinet, who is genuinely enthusiastic (and relatively easy to find those inside who are not).

What Willetts really means by "exciting" is that this bill provides the first real opportunity for the Conservatives to try out their mischievous strategy of voting with the government to drive a wedge between Tony Blair and his backbenchers. Given that the bill is nothing more than a watered-down version of John Major's manifesto proposals of 1997, Willetts cannot credibly claim there is much radical here. He and other members of the shadow cabinet can live with it, because the bill at least expresses the ideology of free-market fundamentalism they share with Blair.

A toxic combination of history and emotion has led the Labour Party into its present bind over the bill. Make no mistake, this has more to do with the party's internal battles than the issues facing teachers and parents today. First, Blair and those around him believe that all reform has to be tested by the level of resistance it provokes in the parliamentary party. As he has already found, when your majority is vulnerable this is a potentially suicidal strategy. Second, the government underestimated the ability of the Labour centre left to organise on this issue. The campaign led by Cherie Blair's former adviser Fiona Millar and the anti-Blairite group Compass has surprised many with its professionalism. The third factor infuses every aspect of the debate. Education is the one issue that otherwise loyal Labour MPs and peers are prepared to go to the wire over. We saw it on tuition fees (a vote Blair would have lost with his present majority) and we are seeing it here with potentially disastrous consequences for Blair himself. It is hard to say which would be more damaging: a lost bill or a bill passed only with the help of the Tories.

Ministers are expressing confidence that they have won over rebels with reassurances on selection and concessions on LEAs to bid to set up new schools. But this is not certain. Estimates of the rebellion when the bill comes before parliament later this month have been based on the 90 or so MPs who signed up to Angela Eagle's alternative white paper, and do not take into account potential rebels who chose not to sign. Key among these are the leaders of the 2004 tuition fees revolt, Nick Brown, George Mudie and Paul Farrelly, who have yet to declare.

On the other side of this dirty numbers game, the government will be targeting prominent members of the present campaign, such as David Chaytor and Richard Burden, who were bought off at the last minute on tuition fees. Now the bill has been published, the real negotiations will begin, and it is likely that the rebels will wrest further concessions from the government. It is possible that Kelly is keeping hold of her veto on LEAs that want to set up new schools in order to give it away later.

In this battle, the role of the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock is more than symbolic. I am told that the dissident lord, as the new guardian of real Labour values, has been playing a hands-on advisory role on parliamentary strategy. He is known to have advised certain rebels not to declare their hand in order to keep government whips guessing which way they will vote.

Imagine if someone who hadn't experienced the apartheid of the English school system was parachuted in to sort it out: a foreign education expert, perhaps, or a Scot. What would they make of it? First, they would notice an edifice skewed by the injustice of the private school system, which allows parents to purchase good exam results for their children. They might note the influence of faith schools in Europe's most atheistic country as an anomaly that feeds into a divisive pecking order. They might observe that the Education Bill tackles neither issue. By refusing to touch these twin pillars of the English education system, everything else is just tinkering around the edges. Everyone in Westminster knows this, from St Paul's girl Ruth Kelly to grammar-school boy David Willetts. It remains the central failure of this government, which came to power promising to transform our schools, that the very institutions with the capacity for breaking down the class system still serve to reinforce it.

Education by numbers

25,335: total number of UK schools in all sectors . . . 2,250: number of independent schools 59.3: total government expenditure on education in £bn in 2003-2004 . . . 508,800: number of full-time qualified teachers 69: percentage of teachers who are women . . . 22: average class size in maintained secondary schools . . . 11,000: number of secondary-school classes that have 31 or more pupils to just one teacher . . . 45: percentage of pupils in inner London who do not have English as their first language, compared to a national average of 9 per cent . . . 14: percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals . . . 55: percentage of pupils of Bangladeshi background eligible for free school meals 1: number of children's lunch boxes that contained a salad, from a survey of 688 . . . 10,000: rough number of children permanently excluded from school . . . 83: percentage of non-religious pupils in secondary schools 3.6: percentage of 17-year-olds gaining at least three grade As at A-level . . . 600,000: rough number of children attending private schools - about the same number of children as have special educational needs . . . 20: rough percentage of secondary-school pupils who play truant at least once a year . . . 50,000: approximate number of families that choose to educate their children at home . . . 15: percentage of college students who are from ethnic minorities, compared to 8 per cent of the population

What the unions think

Steve Sinnott NUT general secretary The structural reform overshadows some excellent aims, such as focusing on personalised learning and tackling unacceptable behaviour. So-called self-governing independence will lead to a two-tier system. The only way to get long-lasting improvements is to address directly what happens in the classroom.

Sally Hunt AUT general secretary One thing this government cannot be accused of is shying away from writing white papers. We are concerned that a greater choice of schools will see the privileged working the system and the rest left with what has been discarded.

Paul Mackney Natfhe general secretary Natfhe has always been a moderniser, in the forefront of progressive developments in education and training. But this is slash and burn, and I won't be dancing in the stubble if comprehensive education is destroyed. As on tuition fees, if this is modernisation I'm old-fashioned.

Mary Bousted ATL general secretary We support the parts of the bill that will make a positive difference to teachers and pupils, but we see no need for trust schools - the proposals are not new and few will be set up unless schools and local authorities have their arms twisted. This is why we strongly oppose creating a schools commissioner, buried in the DfES, beyond proper accountability.

Dave Prentis Unison general secretary National pay and conditions for teachers will be protected, but there has to be a national pay framework for other school professional and support staff. The rise in education expenditure is obviously welcome, but why invest it in unproven quasi-independent schools?

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This article first appeared in the 06 March 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Where did it all go wrong?