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  1. Politics
24 April 2000

Labour’s very own backwoodsman?

Francis Beckett asks if David Blunkett has blown his chance to revive our ailing state schools

By Francis Beckett

Every so often, you hear something that makes you despair. Here’s something I heard the other day.

A reporter called Nicholas Barnard of the Times Educational Supplement phoned the anti-11-plus campaigners in Trafford (near Manchester). They mentioned a statement in their support from the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, which they’d been given by their local MP, Bev Hughes. Barnard – surprised because Blunkett, in office at least, has always refused to help the anti-selection campaigners – rang Hughes. She was furious. How did Barnard know about the statement? It was only for local newspapers, not for national papers. Blunkett wanted to keep local supporters sweet, but he didn’t want anyone in London to know about it.

There’s nothing new in a politician giving one message to one audience, and quite a different message to another. But it seems to have become Blunkett’s whole survival technique. He wants the Daily Mail and the Prime Minister to think that he’s a thoroughly reactionary education secretary, but he wants Labour’s old guard to think that he is still one of them.

So which is he? Radical reformer, in a direct line of descent from Labour reformers like Ellen Wilkinson and Tony Crosland; or reactionary backwoodsman, the worthy successor to Margaret Thatcher, Kenneth Baker and Kenneth Clarke, as many in the teachers’ unions, now holding their annual conferences, suspect?

His early autobiography, On a Clear Day (1995), suggests the radical. It’s clearly written by a man who knows that education changes lives: a working-class boy from Sheffield, blind from birth, who (as Neil Kinnock used to say) knows where his life chances came from, and is determined that others should have them too. I first met him when he led Sheffield Council. I thought he was the rudest man I knew, but with a sort of gritty integrity; a man in a hurry to change the world for the better, with no time to be polite to dilettantes who just write about changing the world.

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Now he’s got the chance to change it, does he really want to?

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Anti-11-plus campaigners feel a sharp sense of betrayal. Britain still has 164 grammar schools. Blunkett could easily have devised a simple and fair system to allow parents in the areas where such schools exist to vote on whether or not to keep selection. Instead, he put so many obstacles in the way of 11-plus opponents (for details, see NS, 7 February) that it is hard for them to get a ballot held, and almost impossible for them to win it. Ripon did get as far as a ballot. But Blunkett made it clear that extra government money for Ripon schools might not be available if Ripon voted against the 11-plus. Not surprisingly, the anti-11-plus campaigners lost, and then Blunkett jeered at them. Dear oh dear, he said, are you old fuddy-duddies still going on about that boring old business of the 11-plus? When I promised no more selection, I was joking. Today’s agenda is standards, haven’t you heard?

Blunkett has ensured that we will go on telling some of our 11-year-olds – mostly the ones from poor homes – that they are failures. Has he done better on anything else?

He inherited a crisis in schools. Teachers were insultingly badly paid, there were not enough of them, and almost no one wanted to be one. Their pride and morale had been sapped by years in which ministers claimed credit for everything that went right in schools, and blamed teachers for everything that went wrong.

Blunkett could have fired Chris Woodhead, the head of the standards watchdog Ofsted, whose carping, self-righteous criticism has so fatally undermined teachers. He did not, but made it clear, privately and only to people who wanted to see Woodhead fired, that he would like to do it, if only the Prime Minister would let him.

Instead, he decided to tackle what he saw as bad teaching. He put in place a national literacy scheme that concentrates on getting teachers to teach in a different way, rather than on spending money on more effective schemes for combating illiteracy. (His adviser, Michael Barber, assures me that the extra resources will come, and I look forward to them.) He also developed a new way of dealing with a failing school: fire the £50,000-a-year head; bring in a new one on £70,000 a year; give him £1.5m to spend; make all the teachers reapply for their own jobs; and, most important of all, change the name.

This last is crucial. Is King’s Manor School in Guildford on a downward spiral? Then call it King’s College. Are our inner-city schools in trouble? Then relaunch them as City Academies. Everyone knows that academies are places where well-brought up young ladies learn serious things in a ladylike fashion, and there are no drugs or other naughtiness. It’s all of a piece with Blunkett’s behaviour over his anti-11-plus statement in Trafford. Image is everything. No doubt, as more schools become colleges and academies, these words will lose their genteel patina. “Academy” will come to mean a crumbling pile of Sixties concrete where sex-mad teenagers inject drugs and teachers dare not go. Then we shall get a new round of verbal gentrification. Expect your children’s children to start school at the Royal University of Western Europe in East Ham.

Martin Johnson, a peripatetic south London teacher who wrote a book called Failing School, Failing City, published last year, argues that nothing will really change until ministers grasp the peculiar problems of teaching in inner-city schools. The 2 or 3 per cent most difficult schools, he writes, need five times as many teachers – not just to halve the class sizes, but also to halve the time that teachers actually spend in the classroom. “That’s partly because teaching in these schools is so stressful and exhausting,” he says, “but also because there are so many incidents in each lesson which need to be followed up . . . With an ordinary teaching load, there is no hope of following up each matter that needs following up, for example of bad behaviour or work not done.”

But where’s the money to come from? Johnson has his eye on a pot of money that is not doing very much just now. It is sitting in the Education Action Zones and Excellence in Cities initiatives.

The theory of Education Action Zones is that public and private money, some of it from business, will be used to improve clusters of up to 20 schools. Actually, most of the money has come from the government. Blunkett even paid for the production of the bids to run the zones. As his Conservative predecessors could have told him, it is an illusion to imagine that companies are prepared to bung great lumps of money at state education.

Yet in order to maintain the illusion, Blunkett accepted bids like the one from Blackburn, which said that local businessmen would sit on the zone’s management committee. This “brings considerable management expertise to the table. The total value of this assistance is estimated at £80,000 a year”. Or Ellesmere Port, where the Blue Planet Aquarium values “half- price entrance to aquarium for action zone pupils” at £12,500, and “staff time and expertise for curriculum development” is 50 hours at £30 an hour – a total of £1,500.

He also accepted bids if they were filled with politically correct jargon. Greenwich got in “joining up our thinking”, “dynamic partnership”, “community”, “empowerment”, “frontiers of learning”, “challenge”, and “respond flexibly”, all on one page.

Blunkett has imposed a vast layer of management consultants, public relations consultants, public affairs consultants (or lobbyists) and education consultants above the schools. None of the millions of pounds of public money that has been absorbed by these experts has bought a single textbook, mended a single school roof, employed a single additional teacher, or contributed anything to anyone’s education. They are being used to fuel the only really dynamic part of Blunkett’s policy for school improvement: privatisation. The most recent move in this direction was his announcement of City Academies. They will be “built and managed by partnerships involving the government, voluntary, church and business sponsors”.

In other words, they are to be fairly indistinguishable from the City Technology Colleges announced in 1986 by the then education secretary, Kenneth Baker. Baker discovered – and it seems incredible that Blunkett has failed to learn from this – that business would not put up the money. In his search for sponsors, Baker had to fall back on the likes of Michael Ashcroft, managing director of the Bermuda-based company ADT Securities, who became the owner of the ADT City Technology College in south London. Today, Ashcroft embarrasses the party by seeming to insist on the peerage to which his many services, including the founding of a City Technology College, clearly entitle him. Blunkett now seems likely to fall into the arms of the car salesman Peter Vardy, who is offering to fund one of the first City Academies.

For 18 years, Britain was run by people who cared nothing for state schools, and Blunkett has the first chance in a generation to build them up again. It’s the best job in government, by far. And, for the moment, it looks as though he’s blowing it.