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Labour to tackle councils on standards

A future Labour government would take action against local education authorities that failed to improve standards in their schools.

The party's major policy document, due to be published next week, gives a central role to local councils as part of Labour's pledge to wage a crusade aimed at raising pupils' achievement.

Labour's blueprint for overhauling education, Excellence for Everyone, envisages education authorities drawing up three-year development plans that would need the approval of the Education and Employment Secretary.

Action would be taken against those that failed to reach national targets.

The first redrafting of policy by David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, is intended to demonstrate that the party is ready to take a tough line on poor teachers and incompetent heads and will expect Labour councils to come up to scratch.

Among the raft of measures to improve schools are plans to introduce foreign language teaching in primary schools; more special units for difficult pupils and the prospect of bringing back the probationary year for teachers just out of college.

Excellence for Everyone emphasises the need for both schools and local authorities to have targets for improved performance. In the case of local authorities, checks could be carried out by the Office for Standards in Education and the Audit Commission.

It says: "Labour will expect all local education authorities to set strategic development plans every three years detailing how standards will be raised. Such education development plans will form the local basis of the national drive for rapid and radical improvement in standards and effectiveness. "

Labour also wants to streamline the machinery for getting rid of incompetent teachers and heads. The paper suggests inspection reports could include a confidential note for heads identifying weak teachers. The competence of heads might be judged against their success in improving their schools.

It also hints at a reform of the inspection service with local authority inspectors and advisers seconded to OFSTED to make up the teams. The paper is critical of the tendering system used to choose independent teams, but does not offer an alternative method.

The paper reveals the shift in thinking within the party with its endorsement of setting by ability; testing of five-year-olds and the stress on homework in both primary and secondary schools.

The key role of heads is acknowledged. Labour wants to see potential heads achieving a management qualification equivalent to a level five national vocational qualification. Without it, no teacher could be put on the heads' register or appointed to a school.

In Government, Labour would examine the distribution of money to schools, particularly the calculation that sets the central government grant to local councils. It wants a system that will direct extra funds to disadvantaged areas, but it does not go into detail.

The paper also fails to explain how Labour intends to introduce foreign languages into primary schools when there is a shortage of language teachers in secondaries.

However, the paper does promise greater use of teacher assistants and teacher associates - members of the community with specialist skills. Teacher assistants, says the paper, might work with children requiring special support; provide foreign language help or listen to children read. The party is keen to encourage good teachers to stay in the classroom and is suggesting the creation of grade for those with advanced skills.

At national level, Labour wants a unit at the Department for Education and Employment to co-ordinate the "crusade" to raise standards. There is also to be a General Teachers' Council on the lines of other professional bodies.

Labour's appeal to the parents in the run-up to the election is likely to be that it has a detailed programme to lever up standards.

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