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Brown stays tough on 'failure'

PM's first speech on education suggests he may ease up on assessment regime but not on underperforming schools.Tony blair made the mantra "education, education, education" his own, but this week it was Gordon Brown's turn to offer his vision in his first speech on education as Prime Minister.

Initially, it seemed the mood music had not changed: getting tough on failing schools was the line being pushed and duly picked up by the media. The tune has been a familar one from the time of David Blunkett and all education secretaries since, and it led the National Association of Head Teachers to challenge "the language of failure".

But closer inspection shows there is good news for teachers as long as the rhetoric is followed up by action. Drawing on a report commissioned by the McKinsey consultancy, Mr Brown said the best graduates needed to be recruited and that quality training throughout a teacher's career was vital.

His aim, he said, was to raise "still further the status of teaching" and bring the "brightest and best" into the profession. Britain needed to learn lessons from countries such as Finland and South Korea which attract higher-calibre recruits.

The PM also said it is vital that parents take responsibility for their child's education and urged schools to improve feedback and have regular meetings.

Most intriguing was a hint that the testing regime, strongly criticised by all quarters of the education establishment, will be kept under review. This is "to ensure that it supports learning and achievement and does not dominate teaching", he said.

This was leapt on by John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, who said the Government was finally girding itself for a change and called for an independent review.

Less welcome to teachers' ears was Mr Brown's promise to get tough on failing schools. He said there were still 670 schools where less than 30 per cent of pupils achieve five A-star to C grade GCSEs including English and maths. These schools will be given annual improvement targets and face closure or being taken over by successful neighbouring schools, including those from the independent sector.

But an analysis by The TES shows that of the 730 schools with the poorest GCSE results, a third were rated good or better in their last inspections. A further 54 per cent were satisfactory, with just 16 per cent described as inadequate.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "It's really important that the value teachers add is taken into account, which flies in the face of this kind of numerical target."

Mr Bangs said threatening to close challenging schools would stop the best teachers going to work in them. "Overall, it was a good speech that emphasised standards, not structures," he said. "But there were some old Blair nostrums that should have been kicked out."

Mr Brown's call for an end to "poverty of aspiration" and a narrowing of the achievement gap for children from poorer backgrounds was applauded. But his own statistic that just 10 per cent of unskilled workers' sons and daughters reach university highlights the difficulty his government has had in making inroads into a society famous for its social inequality.

The only new announcement was an overhaul of apprenticeships, with a legal duty on the Learning and Skills Council to provide enough places in every area and a UCAS-style service matching young people to businesses. Extra money will also be made available for 18- and 19-year-olds going on to advanced apprenticeships, with grants of at least pound;3,000.

So how will the PM achieve his aims? Mainly by relying on present policies and schemes, it seems. On recruiting quality staff, he said he would expand Teach First, which encourages graduates from top universities.

However, the programme has not delivered the transformation Mr Brown is hoping for. It recruits just 270 people a year - less than 1 per cent of new teachers last year - with most failing to stay in education after their initial two-year stint in challenging inner-city schools.

What might prove more successful is the promise to reward high-quality teachers who work in the toughest schools. New incentives, improved teacher training and more personalised learning would help to eradicate failure, Mr Brown said.

Gordon's goals

- Schools where fewer than 30 per cent of pupils achieve five top-grade GCSEs including English and maths will be closed or taken over in five years.

- New incentives for the best teachers to work in the toughest schools.

- Greater parental involvement in schools, with more feedback about children's progress.

- An expanded gifted and talented programme, with special tuition for a million children.

- Apprenticeships to be expanded, with pound;3,000 grants for 18- and 19-year-olds doing advanced courses.

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