The parent power cop-out

Tony Blair's new plan for schools is not a bold reform, but an exercise in cowardly politics

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

UK prime minister Tony Blair’s latest education reforms, designed to give schools more ‘autonomy’, have caused something of a controversy within his own government. Blair says that his plans represent a ‘pivotal moment’ for schools, and the move has been widely seen as an attempt by the prime minister to revive his credentials as a bold reformer. Some, including deputy PM John Prescott, counter that this will flatter the middle classes while disadvantaging the poorest pupils.

Who’s right? Who knows. Blair’s big reform, with its rhetoric of expanding parental choice and new freedoms from local authority control, clearly is a sop to the middle classes, whose desperate search for control over the minutiae of their child’s education has been widely noted and frequently ridiculed. Then again, given the empty character of these reforms, it is doubtful whether poor children will find themselves really disadvantaged, or merely aggrieved. Whatever ‘autonomy’ means in Blair’s dictionary, it does not mean the freedom of schools to provide a decent, rigorous, liberal education – or the ability of parents to choose such an education for their child.

The new proposals, outlined in a White Paper published today, involve allowing schools to opt out of direct control by local education authorities (LEAs), allowing schools themselves to decide how pupils are selected and the courses and teaching methods they offer. Under this new regime, promises Blair, every school ‘who want[s] it’ will be able to transform itself into ‘a self-governing independent state school’, backed by businesses, faith organisations and parents’ groups (1).

So it’s goodbye to the state-run bog-standard comprehensive, and hello to a kind of private education on the cheap, where a certain kind of parent can choose the school he or she wants without shelling out thousands in fees. ‘What we do have to do is raise aspiration and get people to think about the education that best suits them, put their parents in the driving seat, as it were, so that parents can exercise real choice’, said education secretary Ruth Kelly (2). If you are the kind of parent who wants the best for your kids, goes the argument, you will want to put in the time and emotional energy required to tailor-make their education. And if you want to tailor-make their education, you should be allowed to do so.

But is a good parent one who wants to insinuate him or herself into every detail of a child’s education? What if parents would prefer to spend their home life playing with their kids and introducing them to new experiences, rather than hunching over a revision guide or ferrying them from one extra-curricular hot-housing activity to another? Yes, many parents have become quite obsessed with their children’s schooling, and demand more involvement. But part of this is because the education system has become so chaotic and mediocre that they do not feel able simply to let the schools do their job; part of it is because politics has narrowed so much that parents increasingly try to live their lives and achieve their ambitions through their chilren. Either way, for the government to pretend that parental involvement in schools is not a necessary evil but something that parents really really want is a typically dishonest manoeuvre.

And what does ‘opting out’ of state control really mean, anyway? If a bunch of parents were to opine that teachers were spending far too much time and energy on teaching kids about safe sex and healthy eating and scrutinising them for potential signs of trouble at home when they should be teaching Latin instead; if they were to decide that their schools’ meals did not in fact have to be healthy, organic, locally sourced and expensive, and that children would do better to provide their own lunches; if they were to argue for a return to frowned-upon methods of classroom discipline, like the odd telling off; if they were to rule that basic literacy and numeracy targets were a waste of time and should be replaced by the whole-class teaching of entire Shakespeare plays and the recitation of multiplication tables.…

If one of Blair’s new parent-power schools were to decide that what they wanted for their pupils was a traditional liberal education, would they have the freedom and autonomy to go down that route? It’s hardly likely, given that for every mention of ‘autonomy for schools’ the government brings in at least two other policies exercising more central control over what children eat, how teachers teach, how schools structure their timetables and how parents help their children with their homework. When it comes to education, the New Labour administration just can’t leave it alone. This is the politicisation of education, and its consequences are equally terrible for all.

There are many criticisms to be made about the comprehensive school system, just as there are about the grammar school system that preceded it. But both, at least, were coherent systems of education, rooted in a distinct educational philosophy. The New Labour approach, by contrast, continually presents education policy as a means to instrumental ends – social inclusion, the politics of behaviour, flattery of its core voters among the middle classes.

Having destroyed the ethos of education, through insisting that schools play a greater role in everything from healthy eating to bullying prevention to teenage pregnancy reduction, the government now intends to abdicate responsibility for a school’s performance on the learning front, under the guise of promoting ‘autonomy’. It’s got a nerve.


Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s flagship current affairs programme Today on 24 October, former Labour education secretary Estelle Morris delivered her own recipe for successful schooling: getting Britain’s most successful schools to ‘federate’ with mediocre schools. Apart from the obvious question of incentive – in our league-table culture, what would any school have to gain by teaming up with the failing comp down the road? – one might also ask what Morris is doing still giving commentaries on this issue.

Morris’ brief reign as education secretary ended in 2002, following a high-profile scandal over the grade-fixing of A-level results (3) and her failure to ensure that literacy and numeracy targets were met. She explained that she did not feel ‘up to the job’. In 2003, she rejoined the government as a minister for the arts, memorably admitting that she did not know much about contemporary art. She stepped down as a member of parliament (MP) at the General Election on 5 May 2005. On 13 May 2005 it was announced that she would be created a life peer with the title of Baroness Morris of Yardley, and since 15 June she has sat in the House of Lords.

Morris’ ability to snatch promotion from the jaws of disgrace is a reminder that you don’t need to achieve to get ahead in Blair’s Britain – some comfort, perhaps, for all those children currently treading water at school.


Those who feel uncomfortable with the ultra-competitive parenting on show among Britain’s wealthier middle classes may feel tempted to pick up a copy of John O’Farrell’s latest novel, May Contain Nuts, published by Doubeday. Wealthy Alice Chaplin, who lives in the gated communities of Clapham, south London, is consumed by anxiety about whether her intellectually-challenged daughter will get into the top private school of Alice’s choice. Suddenly, she has a brainwave – she will sit the entrance exam on her daughter’s behalf! Little does she know that this will be the first step in a Damascene conversion that opens Alice’s eyes to the uptight pretension of her middle-class peers, the wholesome humanity of the residents of the council estate down the road, and the all-round superiority of comprehensive schooling, for a pupil’s heart if not her mind.…

The book contains some half-laughs, in the form of witty observations about the neurosis of the metropolitan middle classes once their progeny arrive on the scene. But the cynicism of the author, a well-known whingeing liberal who has marched the chip on his shoulder through the Guardian comment pages, spoils all the fun. No insight is delivered without a self-conscious dig at the ‘big snooty social-climbing Tory snobs’ who send their kids to private schools; and any irony in the book’s final pages is drowned in painful earnestness. So Alice simpers, of her daughter’s new life at Battersea Comprehensive:

‘.…Molly would now be part of a society made up of children of all sorts of colours, different religions and varying social classes. She’d have friends who didn’t think it was completely normal to put the au pair staring out of the back of the 4×4 alongside the golden retriever. She would meet Muslims and would learn that Islam wasn’t all jihads and fatwas but was a peace-loving religion based on the belief that…well, whatever it’s based on. I can’t say, I don’t really know any Muslims. She’d grow up in a school in which all the sections of society were represented – like the queue in the post office but with no one slapping their children.’

It comes to something when somebody who is such a fan of comprehensive education that he writes a novel purely designed to slag off parents who ‘go private’ can only laud the diversity element. Forty years ago, the proponents of comprehensivisation believed it was the best way to bring education to the masses. Now, it’s just a post office queue.

May Contain Nuts: A Novel of Extreme Parenting by John O’Farrell is published in the UK by Doubleday. But this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).

(1) Blair faces schools shake-up row, BBC News, 25 October 2005

(2) Kelly plays down rift on schools, BBC News, 23 October 2005

(3) See Examining the scandal, by Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics


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