Paul Foot

The lips that lied

David Blunkett made a statement on 22 March in the Commons entitled "Education (Excellence in Cities)". The gist of the statement was that £350 million would be provided over three years to help "gifted" children in state education in eight big urban areas to become more gifted, to smooth their paths to university, and to rid them of "disruptive" influences.

It is fair to say that every paragraph of the statement flouted the basic principles of comprehensive education which have influenced the Labour Party for most of the century. The whole emphasis was on improving the education of the gifted minority, giving them special mentors and equipment, improving rewards for a small minority of "outstanding" teachers who will be reserved for the newly hived off class of excellence.

The whole speech was admirably summed up by the Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell who recalled Blunkett's famous pledge to the Labour Party conference before the election: "Read my lips—there will be no selection." Steve drew a Blunkett head with huge lips inscribed with the slogan: LOADS MORE SELECTION.

Whereas Labour's comprehensive education policy had been rooted in notions of equality, the Blunkett proposals were rooted in notions of inequality. I know that not everyone who reads Socialist Worker reads the Hansard reports of parliamentary debates, so I thought it might be worth recording the shock and horror with which Labour MPs greeted this catastrophic U-turn in Labour policy.

The only criticism, and that was very muted, came from Bernie Grant who, although he "warmly welcomed" the statement, asked about a return to "the old sin bins syndrome". Blunkett gave an "absolute commitment" (rather like the one he gave on selection) that there would be no more sin bins.

The right wing Tory John Wilkinson was confused. He couldn't understand why it wouldn't have been cheaper, easier and altogether more effective to keep the old Tory assisted places scheme whereby gifted children got state money to go to private schools. That too, after all, was a way of ensuring "excellence in education" for the few while ignoring the many.