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Last Updated: Saturday, 2 December 2006, 03:01 GMT
Blair's farewell to education?
By Mike Baker
Education correspondent, BBC News

Mike Baker
It felt like the first of many goodbyes.

Yet, 10 years after saying his three priorities were "education, education and education", Tony Blair still does not see his education reforms as complete.

The prime minister's education speech this week was newsworthy for its announcements on encouragement for the International Baccalaureate in state schools and more city academies.

Yet closer examination revealed a sense of regret that he has not achieved more with his school reforms over the past decade.

He also sounded what seemed like a note of anxiety about the permanency of the reforms and a desire to embed the latest changes before he leaves Downing Street.

Ten years may seem a long time in politics but many of the reforms remain partial and unfinished.


Mr Blair hinted strongly at one of his main regrets when, looking back at the early years of his government, he said: "over time, I shifted from saying 'it's standards not structures' to realising that school structures could affect standards".

Certainly the phrase "standards not structures" became a mantra during Blair's first term in office, from 1997 to 2001.

This was mainly because of Labour's determination not to become mired in debates about the abolition of grammar schools or the ending of grant maintained status.

So those first years saw little progress in changing the structures of secondary education.

Tony Blair at the SSAT conference
Mr Blair risking a caption contest as he charted his achievements
Indeed the stated focus was primary schools, where all the energy went into the numeracy and literacy strategies and into cutting class sizes.

The big drive on city academies came only in Labour's second term and the push on trust schools and the changing nature of local education authorities only in the third.

The belief that school autonomy was the key - in Blair's favourite phrase, the notion of "independent state schools" - also took a while to move to the forefront of government policy.

As he put it, "at first we put a lot of faith in centrally driven improvements".

Although he added that this had given an "immediate uplift in results", he implied that the long-term strategy required setting schools free, not binding them in with targets.

Estelle Morris, now Lady Morris, was schools minister in Blair's first term and education secretary in his second.

She thinks education has been "transformed" and says Blair's big achievement was putting school reform at the top of the political agenda, where she believes it will now stay for some time.

She does have some regrets that the government did not make an earlier start on reforming secondary schools. But, she adds, "I'm not sure how we could have done it."

She believes there was "a capacity problem in the DfES (Department for Education and Skills)".

"We had some very good people in the civil service but not in depth."

In characteristically honest fashion, she adds that "we did not have all the answers politically either".

'Failure to deliver'

A much tougher judgement on the Blair years comes from Chris Woodhead, who was chief inspector of schools in England during Blair's first term.

"What Blair wanted to do - ensure greater parental choice, diversity and to challenge the educational establishment - was absolutely right," says Woodhead, who is now professor of education at Buckingham University.

However, he adds, Blair "has not delivered on any of that".

He believes the failure of the Blair school reforms was down to the prime minister's "political difficulties" with his own party and his failure to dig down into the detail of education policy.

While Estelle Morris believes there has been a real change in the culture of schools, and particularly in the quality of teaching, Chris Woodhead argues that Labour failed because it did not deliver the freedoms that schools needed.

Whatever the final verdict - and we will not see the full results for many more years, such is the lag between education policy and grass-roots results - Blair has undoubtedly started to shift the direction of education policy-making in England.


From the 1970s, the trend had been to move away from multiple tracks through school to a single, universal approach.

Thus successive Labour and Conservative governments supported the shift from the tri-partite system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools towards a single comprehensive.

They also supported the merging of different exam routes - the O-level and the CSE - into a single exam for all, the GCSE.

These changes were implemented in the name of social equity and as a reaction to a system that was regarded as writing off the majority of young people from an early age.

At first, Blair's government continued the trend towards uniformity: with more central direction and over-arching national targets for all children and all schools.

But latterly he has been more persuaded of the need for different routes for different pupils.

So we have seen, once again, a proliferation of school types and the end of the "monolithic comprehensive".


This week's announcement on the International Baccalaureate was part of the drive to push this differentiation into the sphere of qualifications and curricula.

Within a few years, there will be a wide variety of choices at 16: A-levels, the International Baccalaureate, the new Specialised Diplomas, vocational qualifications or apprenticeships.

This philosophy of different educational routes for different people was, in the past, derided as a "sheep and goats" approach.

Now Blair is arguing that the interests of social equity no longer require a single route for all young people.

His espousal of "personalised education" means that "equal, but different" is his way forward.

As he put it in his speech, old-style academic selection may have been "misguided" but "recognition of different abilities and aptitudes was not".

He has not yet got schools where he wants them to be. The great majority of secondary school pupils still follow the same route: GCSEs then A-levels.

There is still great uncertainty over the proposed Diplomas, which will not even begin until 2008.

The International Baccalaureate is unlikely to spread beyond a tiny minority for many years.

However, if Blair's successors do continue in the same direction, the challenge will be to ensure the different pathways through education are equally valued and not sorted into class-based, rigid hierarchies.

Or, as George Orwell might have put it, will some qualifications be "more equal than others"?

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