Could do better

To New Labour’s credit, it has put education at the centre
of its agenda. Unfortunately, much of the expenditure has gone on
PFI (Private Finance Initiative) contracts whose profits go to the
private fat cats. Professor Allyson Pollock and David Price claim
that matters will get worse when contractors collapse and the state
has to pick up the bits. Already New Labour’s favourite
private firm, Jarvis, has debts of £230 million. If it goes
under, what will happen to its half-finished

And what is happening inside the schools? Labour’s latest
policy includes increasing specialist schools and selection;
promoting extended schools; and reducing democratic control of
education by local authorities. This strategy is flawed for several

First, it gives insufficient attention to the relationship
between teachers and pupils. As an evacuee, I missed much schooling
and, after the war, did poorly at lessons and failed the 11-plus
exam. Indeed, I had to stay an extra year at junior school. Then a
gifted teacher took an interest in me. She knew I enjoyed Just
on the radio and said that if I wrote a short play
about William, the class could perform it. Somehow I did, and my
confidence was boosted when she beamed her approval. I improved
and, although I failed the 11-plus again, I was placed on the
“reserve list”. But it happened that a secondary modern school was
upgraded to grammar status, and the reserves got in. Its staff
lacked degrees and were mainly ex-servicemen with “emergency
training”, but they included some brilliant teachers and I went on
to university.

These teachers loved teaching. By contrast, today I have teacher
friends who can’t wait to retire because they are worn out by
regulations, initiatives, tests and inspections. The key issue of
freeing staff to teach is largely missing from the government

Second, the government is ignoring the successes

of state comprehensive schools. Years ago, we in the Labour
party campaigned successfully for the comprehensive system.

Today, New Labour is set on academies and specialist schools
with selective intakes, and on praising private education. Money is
diverted from some comprehensives on the grounds that the system
has “failed”.

I have long admired Tony Benn, who put his principles into
practice by sending his children to the local comprehensive. His
daughter, Community Care columnist Melissa Benn, points
out that in the early 1960s only 16 per cent of children obtained
five O-levels and only 10 per cent proceeded to higher education.
After three decades of comprehensives, the figures were 51 per cent
and 40 per cent. She concludes: “The strangely uncelebrated story
of the comprehensive school has been one of slowly rising standards
for all, including the middle classes.”2

Years ago, I was a helper at a youth club in Glasgow that drew
in youngsters from the local comprehensive. One was David Bell who
today is the chief inspector at Ofsted. I wonder what he thinks of
being a civil servant in a government that undermines the very
system that developed his abilities.

Third, New Labour has overestimated the contribution of extended
schools – schools that are also the base for youth and community
work. Such a system will suit some children, but those with
negative experiences of school may feel uncomfortable in these

Further, the use of public funds for extended facilities
reinforces the government’s reluctance to back locally run
neighbourhood projects. Yet young people often prefer the clubs of
projects that are nearby and whose activities they shape.

My vision is of a truly comprehensive system, ultimately
responsible to elected bodies, where every school is properly
resourced and where teachers are free to use their skills in
face-to-face relationships with pupils. It is also of
neighbourhoods where youngsters extend their education by
participating with their peers in local projects.

But better teachers and schools are not sufficient. Children
from poor homes cannot benefit from education to the same extent as
the affluent. If New Labour is serious about improving the
educational and job prospects of all children, then the Blair
mantra of “education, education,education” must be accompanied by
that of “equality, equality, equality”.

1 A Pollock and D Price, “We
are left footing the PFI bill,” Guardian, 27 July,

2 M. Benn, “Where one size
fits all,” Guardian, 23 July, 2004

Bob Holman is associated with a locally-run community
project in Easterhouse, Glasgow.

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