It is the worst-kept secret in 11 Downing Street that Gordon Brown intends to make education his first priority when he takes over as prime minister. Less well-known is the prominence he intends to give to tackling bullying and violence in our schools.
Long before the row over racism on Celebrity Big Brother hijacked his trip to India, Brown had concluded that low-level bullying had become a serious concern to British parents. Many have real concerns about the safety of their children at school – and this applies at primary as well as secondary level. I am told that in his visits to schools around the UK, the Chancellor has been struck by the number of parents who have taken him aside to discuss the issue of violence and victimisation. He now believes that a school’s ability to cope with bullying has become an important prism through which parents view the school. For many middle-class parents, it has become a crucial factor (up there with results and class sizes) in making a judgement about whether they entrust their children to the state sector.
As with so many of Brown’s future policies, the details are hazy. But he believes education in the inner cities would be transformed if parents knew that all schools and local education authorities were discharging their duty to make schools safe places to study.
There are several ways in which he could do this. He could insist that Ofsted, the school inspection service, start to see itself as a child protection agency as well as a watchdog on teaching standards. Since Labour came to power, Ofsted, like league tables, has become a vastly expensive exercise in stating the obvious. Nine years on, a vast statistical box-ticking industry surrounds our schools, but to what end?
Parents can now discover, by scouring the annual league tables in their local paper, or by reading the Ofsted reports of schools in their neighbourhood, that those at the bottom of the tables and those that fail their Ofsted inspections are generally in the most deprived areas. Schools already develop anti-bullying strategies and teach children citizenship, but these are bolt-ons and not seen as part of the core functions of a school.
Brown quickly realised that the storm over CBB was no passing embarrassment, but a humiliating affront to the image that Britain has of itself as a land of essentially decent people who play fair and stand up for the underdog. The Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty is not just a contestant in a game show: she is a guest in this country who has been shown the worst side of our national character, as she was quick to point out. Brown knows that the values he treasures as “British” have been sorely challenged internationally by the government’s foreign policy. Jade Goody has not helped.
The most disturbing aspect of the pack-baiting of Shetty is that those involved saw nothing unusual in what they were doing. Their racism will come as no surprise to Asians who have grown up in Britain, but it was odd that their gang mentality was accepted as relatively normal, not just by the girls themselves, but by other house members. It is this acceptance of low levels of verbal abuse and victimisation that needs to be tackled in any schools policy.
It is tempting to say that the trio of CBB bullies represents the failure of Blairite policy, but this would be unfair. Goody was 15 when Labour came to power. Her co-conspirators, the singer Jo O’Meara and the model Danielle Lloyd, were 18 and 13, respectively. These are not Blair’s children, but nor are they Thatcher’s. They spent their formative years under John Major’s rule, a lost period for education, when policy was dominated by the dead hand of Chris Woodhead, a chief schools inspector who despised teachers. In this era, the government all but abandoned the state sector, and “child-centred learning” was demonised, as if education could somehow ignore the people it was designed to serve.
Brown has made it clear that under his leadership schools will be expected to tailor education to the individual pupil. Jade, Jo and Danielle are clearly damaged individuals. Jade is a racist despite her mixed parentage (her grandfather was a Jamaican bus driver), or possibly because she never came to terms with it. Her heroin-addict father left the family when she was a toddler, and died of an overdose. Tabloid reports suggest she was a bully at school and Jade herself says she was bullied. It is chastening that the same schools which failed to teach her that East Anglia is in Britain also failed to teach her the basic human values of tolerance.
Cabinet colleagues who have found themselves on the wrong end of Brown’s clunking fist may find his transformation into an anti-bullying crusader hard to take. But if he can make our most challenging schools safe places to learn, they may be able to forgive his past behavioural problems.