Inventing names is a brainstorm in a teacup

Brainstorming is pretty important for civil servants and government advisers. How else can one find suitable appellations for Education Secretary Estelle Morris's new "school ladder"?

We had advanced specialist schools and training schools in last year's White Paper. And with the pound;12.8 billion Estelle extracted from the Chancellor, came yet more terminological tongue-twisters. We now have Schools Facing Challenging Circumstances to add to schools in special measures.

As a special adviser, I spent many a frustrating hour seeking new names for new projects. Combinations of "excellence", "advanced" and "success" were exchanged on the now infamous Whitehall email system. After-hours wordplay even extended to the Westminster Arms pub.

"Foundation school" was suggested by imaginative local authority officers who had lost the appetite for continued war against grant-maintained schools. And I have to confess responsibility for inventing the phrase "city academy".

And we could not call our schools policy document Excellence for All in 1995 because the Liberal Democrats had already used the name for their previous manifesto, so it became instead the alliterative Excellence for Everyone.

So I know why we have the names. Each new initiative needs description. Otherwise those spoilsport education correspondents will groan that they have heard it all before. But just like puppies should outlive Christmas, new school names should last longer than the next press briefing.

Don't get me wrong. Specialism is the only practical way to improve choice and standards in comprehensive schools. And there is nothing wrong with describing a school as a technology or language college, if that is what it is. But the many other new names are confusing parents and making it harder for them to understand what their local school does.

Not that the different categories do not serve a useful purpose. We need more schools to train teachers. And the best schools should share their expertise with their neighbours, failing or not. But the training school, beacon school and advanced specialist school titles are in danger of obscuring rather than illuminating their valuable work (especially where a school enjoys all three titles and more).

Instead of creating new names, more time needs to be spent explaining in the plainest language how the Government's new vision works. And something other than the "ladder" is needed to describe their mutual relationship if the "bog-standard comprehensive" is not to languish permanently on the lowest rung.

Labour's "new vision for comprehensives" was first outlined by David Blunkett six years ago. Real implementation actually began in 1999, with the launch of Excellence in Cities. Yet a recent Channel Four News education poll found that most parents recognised there had been improvements in primary schools under Labour, but thought there had been no improvement in secondaries.

In part, that is because of the narrative with which the Government fought the last election and now justifies the spending review rises. Primary schools are deemed to have got better in Labour's first term, but secondary schools are supposedly only now being tackled.

Of course, there have been disappointments, like Fresh Start or education action zones. And there are clearly several hundred schools which need to improve significantly. But there is plenty of evidence that much of the Government's secondary strategy has made a difference, especially in inner-city areas like Birmingham and east London.

Moreover, nearly 800 failing schools have successfully been turned around since 1997, with a further 150 closed. Yet when the public hears another new name or a new strategy they can only assume that earlier initiatives have failed or been abandoned.

Ministers need to turn their attention to selling that success. The new system not only needs to work, it needs to be seen to work. And if that means a cull of categories of school, or fewer rungs on the ladder, so be it. Who will mourn the Whitehall brainstorm?

Conor Ryan was special adviser to David Blunkett at the Department for Education and Employment, 1997-2001

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