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Just take confidence;Opinion

The Thatcherite dogma of the education marketplace cost the country pound;3 billion, says Philip Hunter. Can New Labour, with its new pragmatism, avoid making similarly expensive mistakes?

After nine months of Labour in power, we have a new relationship between government, local authorities, schools and colleges. It is time to ask whether we can avoid falling down the same holes as we did before.

The last government relied on the market to raise standards. The marketplace was to be built around four principles: a clear statement of what was expected of schools (the national curriculum); the freedom to compete for pupils and students; more money for schools (and headteachers) which attracted more pupils and students; and a clear information system (league tables and inspection reports) so the punters could make informed choices.

How well did it perform? There are three examples worth examining.

First, the national curriculum. For many years most people have agreed that there should be a formal statement of what schools should teach. To that extent, the establishment of the national curriculum has been a success. But what about how it was set up and the cost?

The route towards the national curriculum has been tortuous and expensive . The government disbanded the quango dealing with curricular questions - the Schools Council - and set up three in its place: the National Curriculum Council, the Schools Examinations and Assessment Council and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications. In six years, 27 people held the seven top posts dealing with curricular and assessment matters. Only two had ever taught and only one (chief inspector Chris Woodhead) stayed in post long enough for his chickens to come home to roost.

Putting in place the first national curriculum, removing it and replacing it with the version we have today cost about pound;1 billion, never mind the price in terms of teachers, time and stress. Few would claim this to be value for money.

Second, the inspection system. HM inspectorate was disbanded and many HMIs were made redundant. Under the Office for Standards in Education, private companies, education authorities and others were invited to bid for contracts to inspect schools. The quality of the new teams varied from excellent to execrable. The system was geared up to inspect every school every four years; then wound down again to inspect only every six years.

The cost of the first cycle of inspection amounted to another pound;1 billion and, again, there was stress for teachers. Did this expenditure have any effect? The general view in the media and government seems to be that the OFSTED regime has increased public confidence that schools are being properly monitored and, if that is the case, the programme is of some value. However, a pound;1bn is a lot to pay for public confidence.

Third, there was the establishment of grant-maintained schools and the incorporation of colleges which released them from education authority control. This led to problems. Schools had to be bribed to change their status and, for the first time in education, public money was spent in accordance with the political views of heads and governors rather than educational need. Many in GM schools embraced a business approach with their loyalty to their institutions rather than to the community. There was a rapid breakdown in relationships between institutions, with many joint schemes abandoned. LEA services were turned into businesses to the benefit of the rich children and the rich schools but at the cost of the poor.

The additional cost of the GM schools programme is almost impossible to calculate. But in terms of the resources the GM schools got and others did not, we can count up a bill of another pound;1bn. There was no evidence that the performance of GM schools improved as a result of their change in status.

So we have invested pound;3bn on introducing the education market. Thatcherite dogma has now changed to a pragmatic mix of Stalinism (five-year targets), Trotskyism (education action zones, hit squads for failing education authorities and schools) and Maoism (community schools). Can the new pragmatism protect us from these hugely expensive mistakes? There are four questions we should ask.

Have we a clear vision of where we want to be in 15 years' time? It is extraordinary how many decisions nowadays seem to be reactions to an ephemeral scare or fashion. Yet, of all the public services, education has to be a long-term business. We will not know for 15 years whether we are preparing our five-year-olds properly for the world they will work in. We should spend more time trying to predict the long-term effects of our actions.

Have we a coherent set of policies on how to get there? The White Paper, Excellence in Schools, and consequent legislation relies heavily on development planning and target setting to deliver the Government's policies. Most schools and authorities welcome this. However, there is a problem. There are now several groups of civil servants working separately on the policies set out in the schools White Paper, the Green Paper on special needs, the consultation paper on the National Grid for Learning and the White Paper on lifelong learning. There are other groups working on school buildings, student support and the under-fives. All of these developments seen sensible and urgent on their own but, at authority and school level, we have to stitch them together into development plans which make sense.

Are we basing developments on evidence of what works ? There is now a wealth of evidence of what makes successful schools. The Government is trying to justify its ideas on evidence. There have been homework clubs, literacy and numeracy hours, action zones, target setting and the rest. All have been found to work in some circumstances. The questions are now more sophisticated ones about what works best where and when.

The same is true for education authorities. There is a multitude of ways of organising and running them. There is evidence from the Audit Commission on the efficiency of different kinds of organisation and processes and the new OFSTED inspections should produce more. But there is confusion and rivalry between OFSTED and the Audit Commission and it is not clear how they will produce the evidence we need.

Can we deliver? The quality of a school or LEA is defined by the day-to-day performance of their teachers and staff in dealing with pupils, students, parents and the public. There are two requirements to improve staff quality - good training and a supportive environment. Our training systems are improving. Producing a supportive climate in which we can all be more confident that our work is appreciated is going to be more difficult.

This last question is the most important. Education depends on the personal relationship between a teacher and a pupil or student. Teachers and learners need to set themselves high standards, and be confident they can achieve them. For teachers to be confident, we need confident heads, confident authorities and a confident government. The Government will only succeed if it can keep that confidence.

Philip Hunter is director of education at Staffordshire County Council and president of the Society of Education Officers

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