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Dose of realism could ease election hangover

Do you remember how you felt on the morning of May 2 1997? Do you feel the same way today? If not, why not?

Perhaps we feel that we have just elected a government with no real solutions to the most urgent problems facing the education service?

In the election campaign, David Blunkett said nothing to suggest that he had a better grasp on the teacher supply crisis. The Labour manifesto said little about how the new government would improve the job of teaching, nor did it offer constructive alternatives to a 35-hour-a-week limit on teachers' hours, which ministers have rejected.

There was also a deafening silence from all the parties on the problems for external testing that are just around the corner unless lessons are learned from the debacle in Scotland last summer. The proposed new targets for 14-year-olds, more tests at key stage 3 and changes post-14 will worsen these difficulties unless a fresh approach is taken to external assessment.

Could it be that teachers are resigned to what is to come? New ministers inevitably mean new initiatives. This is a particular concern in secondaries, where we have begun to feel the turning of the key stage 3 screw and know that the policy of greater diversity between schools will make the job much harder for some of us.

It isn't all doom and gloom. We are enthusiastic about a government that has pledged a substantial rise in education spending and is devoted to raising standards. But every measure requires a period of implementation. Ministers cannot simply introduce one policy after another and pressurise schools into implementing them all immediately. Secondary schools are not finding it easy to implement AS, A2, vocational A-levels and key skills post-16. Now they face new GCSE syllabuses and a key stage 3 strategy to start in September.

The new government must improve on its predecessor's strategy. First, its vision for raising standards, working towards the school of the future and providing equitably for all young people, must be clarified. It must work steadily towards these goals and avoid piecemeal reform. Second, it must create a policy framework, set outcome targets and then support schools in achieving them. It must learn to trust professional expertise and resist the temptation to dictate the means as well as the ends.

Third, it must focus on priorities and avoid the scattergun approach of three initiatives and 10 press releases each week. Fourth, it must give schools time to implement changes before introducing more. Fifth, changes must be costed in terms of teacher time as well as school funding. Sixth, ministers must never miss an opportunity to celebrate the success of schools.

Above all, the Government must recognise that its policies will only be successful if it introduces measures to solve the teacher supply crisis.

Of course, it could just be that teachers are too weary to show excitement about an election result - or anything else - towards the end of what has been the most exhausting year in professional memory. They are weary with dealing with impractical initiatives and teacher shortages, weary with the gap between rhetoric and reality.

We wish the new education ministers well. We look forward to working with them and are keen to put behind us the years of energy-sapping market-based competition.

Maybe we were just too optimistic in 1997. Let's be more realistic about our expectations of the new government in 2001. But let's also insist that the new government is more realistic about its expectations of us.

John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association

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