A Blairite learns a lesson

10 May 2009
The Daily Telegraph
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The premise of this book is intriguing for anyone who is remotely interested in politics or education. The privately educated Peter Hyman was an advisor to Tony Blair from 1994 until 2003; for the last two years of his tenure he rose to being Head of Strategic Communications at Number 10, and was one of the Prime Minister’s main speech-writers. He then gave it all up to become a classroom assistant at one of the roughest comprehensives in London, Islington Green, which was, ironically, the local school to which the Blairs declined to send their children.

His motives for such a radical "demotion" are not as easily comprehensible as the Blairs’ decision to keep their children out of a school with such a terrible reputation. Hyman writes in 1 Out Of Ten that he wanted "to do something more hands on, more in the real world".

This unusual book contains dramatised accounts of his year (from 2003-4) at Islington Green, some reminiscences about life working as Tony’s speech-writer and factotum, and lots of analysis of government policy and its impact upon teaching.

The first part describes Hyman’s life as Blair’s assistant but it is inter-cut with chapters about his time at Islington Green. One can see his purpose here: he wants the reader to see the contrast between the "corridors of power" and the grotty classrooms of the school. Unfortunately clichés rain down upon the reader on every page, the most glaring being his descriptions of Blair himself: his "barn-storming performances", his "great speeches", "powerful ideas", his "star quality" and so on.

But anti-Blairites shouldn’t throw the book against the wall before they have finished it, because buried behind all the New Labour platitudes there is a very interesting tale indeed, one which, if one reads between the lines, is a serious critique of this government. By the end of the book, although Hyman is still mouthing his empty words about the marvels of Tony, the reader is left with a very different impression of the Prime Minister’s education policies.

Like many inner-city comprehensives, this is a school where pupils have hurled abusive language at staff, attacked each other, and vandalised school property, and where "street culture" dominates over "learning culture". This is probably Hyman’s code for saying that gangs are rife in the school. He also implies that lunch times are out of control, that there’s very little homework being done, and that "many" staff take lots of days off sick.

Perhaps more damaging than this, from Tony Blair’s point of view, is the portrait that Hyman paints of the head teacher, Trevor Averre-Beeson, who is bombarded with new government initiative after new government initiative while trying to control his unruly school. Having just attended a meeting full of educational pen-pushers, here’s what Averre-Beeson says: "This is a charade… the system breeds a bureaucracy of mediocre administrators and bureaucrats and educationalists who don’t work in schools… I left early. I couldn’t stand it."

This is a sentiment which, for all his brittle cheer, one feels, by the end of the book, Hyman shares. "I don’t know whether I will stay in teaching, because I don’t know yet if I’ve got the ability to control a class," he says. I’m tempted to decode this statement as: "Now that I’ve written my much publicised book about it all, I’m getting the hell out!"

But Hyman is not the real villain of the story – the real villain is Blair himself, who has presided over a mediocre education policy for two successive governments, and probably will for a third.

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