Devil take the hindmost

With the publication of the new white paper on education, the prime minister urges us to accentuate the positive and, as he puts it, “stop focusing relentlessly on the negative” when it comes to his plans for more “parent power” in schools.

Getting his retaliation in first, before the bill even thudded onto our desks the prime minister lambasted his critics for questioning the wisdom of his proposals. He predicted he would be accused of unleashing a free for all on selection in schools, doing away with local education authorities, privatising public services and giving too much to the middle classes. So he was spot on there then.

But despite Tony Blair’s missionary zeal, it’s hard for those in social care working with vulnerable and disadvantaged children to discern very much to welcome in the new measures. For a start they seem likely to widen the gap even further between the brightest – or often the best-coached – youngsters and those who struggle with huge hurdles in life and who so often end up either truanting or being excluded, never to return. The idea of enlarging popular schools to cope with demand would risk increasing the anonymity of children and would hardly be conducive to their well being. It would also damage the very qualities that made the school successful in the first place. And when Blair urges schools to “market” their strengths to parents and develop “national and regional educational brands”, it almost makes you nostalgic for the old talk of “back to basics”.

Meanwhile, there is precious little in the bill on joint-working between education and social care, a lack of engagement reflected at last week’s National Social Services and Education Conference in Birmingham. The event was, to say the least, rather light on education content. And the fact that education secretary Ruth Kelly failed to show up only compounded that feeling. No doubt Kelly’s diary was very full last week but then so was the health secretary’s yet she managed to get there.

Kelly’s cancellation sent out the wrong message. If the conference was anything to go by there is still a long way to travel before true integration between education and social care becomes any sort of reality.

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