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Blair majors on standards

National tests for five-year-olds could form a radical plank of Labour's new education policy, according to a speech to be given today by party leader Tony Blair.

In an apparent attempt to move the debate forward from the damaging six-month row on the future of grant-maintained status under a Labour government - the subject of a policy document published yesterday - Mr Blair will insist that school organisation is less important than improving overall standards in British education. Primary standards, unification of post-16 education and the professional status of teachers are highlighted as areas of major concern.

Combined with education spokesman David Blunkett's own pronouncements since his appointment by the incoming Mr Blair last summer, and the pragmatic new approach to GM schools, the speech marks what amounts to an almost complete rethink of policy during the past year.

During the speech before an invited audience at London University's Institute of Education, Mr Blair will emphasise his own "passion" for education, and throw down the gauntlet to party members who disagree with the new stance. "For some of the Left to talk of pressure on schools, teachers and pupils is to sell the past. For me, this typifies the reasons why the Left has been losing elections for the past 16 years instead of winning them. The people who suffer from lack of pressure are not the well-off and articulate.

"Instead, the losers are precisely the people who need a hand up, because they were not born with advantages. It is traditional Labour voters who lose when the teacher is poor, discipline non-existent and the culture excuses low standards on grounds of disadvantage."

Moreover, in an edited version of the speech published in today's TES, Mr Blair stresses that many Conservative education reforms opposed by Labour until recently would be adopted in some form if his party came to power.

He writes: "While the old Left emphasised support for schools without sufficient pressure on them to succeed, and the new Right thought that the solution was pressure without support, we need both. Pressure means pupils, teachers, schools and LEAs setting targets for improvement, it means the publication of meaningful performance data, proper school inspection and teacher appraisal, rigorous pupil assessment, and intervention when schools are failing . . . Support means not just proper funding, but valued teachers, professional development, extra-curricular activity, flow-through from inspections, parental and community involvement and national leadership. All are vital."

The speech follows the decision to overturn established Labour policy on GM schools, which until this week would have seen them returned to local authority control. The rethink, ordered last autumn shortly before it emerged that Mr Blair had decided to send his eldest son eight miles across London to the opted-out London Oratory, would now allow schools to choose between three different statuses while maintaining equality of funding and a locally determined overall admissions policy.

In one of several strong passages, Mr Blair is due to tell his audience: "I know that good education confers enormous privilege and I want that privilege to be extended much wider than it has been up to now, extended into the roots of society so that we banish once and for all the deadening culture of low expectation that has been so damaging to us all."

He wants, he says, to tackle the "poverty of aspiration that is a key source of low expectation and underperformance", and says it is vital to escape the culture of blame and short-termism which has marred the education system for too long.

Primary education, he says, has "for a long time been a poor relation in the education system". Every child must be helped with the basics "which is why the end of Department for Education support for the Reading Recovery scheme, a pioneering programme that held out the hope of a literacy guarantee to seven-year-olds, is so detrimental."

Drawing heavily on the work of school improvement specialists, Mr Blair also suggests that the idea of assessing pupils embarking on compulsory education at the age of five to find their strengths and weaknesses, as already pioneered by several local education authorities, should be addressed by the development of national guidelines.

Although this would theoretically make it possible to publish "value added" league tables for primary schools, there is no indication that this is what Labour plans. There is also no indication that the party currently intends to redress the funding imbalance between primary and secondary education, although testing at five coupled with existing assessments at 7 and 11 would make it easier to identify successful schools.

Less controversially, Mr Blair promises a post-16 system which would allow students to combine academic and vocational work according to aptitude and interest. "We need to broaden the academic track, upgrade vocational alternatives, and develop compatible curriculum structures and common principles of assessment that promote not just flexibility between academic and vocational options, but the combination of academic and vocational study, " he writes.

Like the other education policies, Labour stresses this is a long-term aim, but signals indicate an early start on smoothing the path for teenagers who wish to mix academic and vocational subjects.

Mr Blair is also floating the idea of rewarding excellence among teachers who do not want to move into management. The "expert teacher" grade would be designed for those who are "a credit to the profession, an example to their colleagues and whose expertise should not be lost to the classroom".

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