Boris Johnson's education enquiry and delivery plan are perhaps the first sign that the government is managing to move beyond sorting out Labour's mess to construct a positive Conservative alternative. There are several reasons why this is difficult, most connected with what I've described as the octopus of progressive education, which has got its tentacles and suckers into every Conservative initiative from the Bullock committee onwards.
The academic boasting of his third-class degree at the Wellington Festival was just one recent example of a person opposed to Conservative values who had been given far too much influence, in his case, over the National Curriculum.
When I was with Essex Council, the senior inspector for English stated quite openly that "we will subvert anything we disagree with", and he and the authority were very successful in doing so.
Not, I think this time. The Mayor and his deputy, Munira Mirza, have put together an advisory expert group that has genuine, practical expertise in teaching, learning and management. Its members know the political and organisational background (eg Nick Gibb, Tony Sewell, Frankie Sulke), and have walked the talk (eg Sahed Ahmed, Patricia Sowter, Bernice McCabe). They will not be taken in by work that is not based on evidence, and are committed to real subjects.
The fact that a committee with this blend of skills has been assembled shows how far we have come in the past three years.
The programme, beginning with the Gold Club for schools and the Excellence Fund to develop proper subject teaching, is clear, purposeful and appropriate.It restores the focus on excellence, rather than Labour's fudge of "outstanding", which diluted Ofsted's top grade by combining it with the second – as too few schools were rated excellent for Labour's comfort.
Real excellence requires the traditional combination of inspiration and perspiration. I've seen the outcome in one school headed by a committee member, with brilliant work in everything from maths to drawing, via Shakespeare and debating. Put the whole package of skills together, and we may, at last, be seeing "the end of the beginning."
I got an insight into our opponents' way of working last week by reading Sir Michael Barber's two books, Instruction to Deliver and Deliverology. Sir Michael was head of Blair's Delivery Unit (PMDU), and developed a system of "gentle, relentless pressure", based on data, to drive improvements from the centre, or, to an unbeliever, to make sure that Blair's word was law. I've written about this in more detail on my website and couldn't help wondering whether Sir Michael had succeeded in at least one of Blair's data-based instructions, to "sort out the railways".
The problem with measuring success through data in education is that the government can fiddle the data. The proportion of university graduates, for example, can be increased by lowering entrance requirements, giving out more top grades, or both. The same goes for the 5 C+ grade benchmark at GCSE – I'm fed up with calling it 5 A* to C, as if an A* and a C had much to do with each other. Raising the proportion of C+ grades, and adding bogus equivalents, does not actually improve education – it just gives the impression of it.
Accountants have gained their present ascendency in management and consultancy because their core business, analysing accounts, made them look at data that others were unaware of, and let them use this to save money and promote growth. Even in the education business it sometimes works, as in the growth of the simple, plastic Numicon system for basic maths teaching – I've bought two sets, and it is currently helping one of my pupils with subtraction. The biggest of the accountants, McKinsey, has developed systems that have become popular with left-leaning governments across much of the world. Is it, though, delivering genuine improvements or just the impression of them? As Maureen Lipmann told us in the BT ads, "You get an ology, you're a scientist." What does that make you if you invent one?