Ten years ago, as Labour prepared for power, Tony Blair promised that his new government’s three top priorities would be “education, education and education”. If, as seems almost inevitable now, Gordon Brown leads the party into the next election, he will add a fourth priority: “education”.
For some time, those around the Chancellor have realised that schools policy can be sold as this government’s major achievement. Brown will be able to argue that the transformation of state primary schools (and many secondaries) has been Labour’s crowning glory. Education, I am told, will dominate Brown’s economic and social policy. His pre-Budget report of 6 December, intended as his last, was trailed as the blueprint for a Brown premiership, focusing on the environment, inequality and globalisation. But, more than any other politician, Brown knows that money cannot be thrown at fine words and abstractions.
Since spring, when Brown announced in the Budget that state secondary-school funding would be increased to match the average in the independent sector, education has dominated his thinking on Labour’s future. The generous injection of cash into schools, colleges and universities announced in the PBR is designed to show that education will be the glue that binds the disparate elements of a Brown manifesto.
For all the hype, the Chancellor’s green credentials are still to be established. A doubling in air passenger duty is to be applauded. But Brown has been able to raise this environmental levy only because he knows this is the one area in which the Tories and the Lib Dems will back tax rises. This is largely window-dressing necessary in the current political climate. Brown’s commitment to the environment is challenged by the Treasury’s own report, by Kate Barker, of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, which suggests streamlining the planning system to make it easier for developers and business to build wherever they like.
The Chancellor has been understandably cautious about showing his hand on social policy before taking over as PM, preferring to reveal a big fist on security, terrorism and Trident. But senior ministerial voices in the Brown camp have begun to raise their concerns that the government has been allowed to drift in this strange period of interregnum. They hope the PBR will fix this.
The details are important here. The extra money to modernise school infrastructure shows a genuine commitment to ending the ghetto status of many comprehensives. The shake-up of further-education colleges is perhaps more significant. By endorsing the proposals of Lord Leitch’s report on Britain’s skills crisis, Brown has recognised the desperate need for reform that many in the sector have been demanding for a decade. Some on the left will bemoan the fact that more of the £5.5bn skills budget will be channelled through business. But this may bring to an end the present situation where FE principals can run their institutions as personal financial fiefdoms.
Behind the headline figures there is some serious soul-searching going on around Brown, with an intention to rebuild education policy after the battering it received over tuition fees, the collapse of confidence in the A-level system and trust schools. The belief is that despite these crises, people still trust Labour on education. The Eton-dominated Tories, despite their latest policy review, are still not convincing in this area.
Brown has been forced to recognise that schools in this country are still failing those at the bottom of the pile. More seriously, he now realises that this failure was built into the government’s own measure of success: primary-school targets. When recently Christine Gilbert, the new head of Ofsted, declared her disappointment that a fifth of 11-year-olds are leaving school with poor literacy, it should have come as no surprise to ministers. The government planned for 85 per cent of children to hit an acceptable standard by 2006, so it is inevitable that those at the bottom would be neglected by schools chasing their targets.
As I reported during the Labour conference, Brown’s advisers are looking at how changes in classroom technique can be tailored to the needs of the most disadvantaged or gifted (one-to-one teaching for some, university-style lectures for others). Brown is also demanding a new approach to the most marginalised of children, the so-called Asbo generation.
It is often what is not said in set-piece announcements that reveals most. There was no reference to the Blairite Respect agenda in the PBR, or any money to fund it. This provides clear evidence of a change in direction. It goes against Brown’s philosophy that the most disadvantaged should be expected to show the most “respect”, or that those who have nothing should be expected to show deference to those who have it all.