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Leading from the top

Having finally achieved the formal levers of power, David Blunkett and his team have spent the past fortnight finding out how limited the options are in an education service centrally funded (but by another department), locally administered and with what Michael Howard might call operational responsibility devolved to 25,000 headteachers and governing bodies. Just about the only action they can take without having to depend on others outside the department is to call a press conference.

It is not altogether surprising then, that their immediate actions - national targets for literacy and numeracy, a review of local management, a boost for the school effectiveness unit, getting tough with failing schools - suggest that what they inherited at Sanctuary Buildings is not so much a signal box full of shiny levers ready to send the service down a new track as a wardrobe of clothes left behind by the previous tenant. But then, since they both shared at least one tailor - Professor Michael Barber, late of the University of London and esteemed columnist of this parish - David Blunkett was always likely to seem to be indulging in a certain amount of cross-dressing with Gillian Shephard.

But can Blunkett adopt the same apparel in a new style? His objective is to move those who operate the education service in roughly the same direction as his predecessor. The question is whether they are going to continue to be driven from behind or whether they can now expect to be led from the front?

What is immediately apparent is that there is to be no let up on the pressure to raise standards. If anything, Blunkett and his minister for standards, Stephen Byers, seem determined to come down even more heavily upon the 41 schools that have languished for two years or more on the failing schools register.

This may point to "drift" as Blunkett terms it. Complacency on this scale - if that is what it is - affecting perhaps 20,000 pupils or more is unconscionable. It might, however, underline the difficulties of turning round schools of such notoriety given the support currently available. David Blunkett recognises himself that inner city education is in a state of incomparable crisis demanding exceptional, targeted measures. But he is also clear-sighted enough to see that this cannot mean the neglect of the less obvious underachievement still too widespread in average and even above average schools. So no let up on the identification of the shortcomings of teachers, schools or local authorities wherever they are seen to be failing.

But more support and recognition of what is good is also promised. Most of what was in Labour's manifesto - the "fresh start" proposals for transforming bad schools, removing incompetent heads and teachers, mandatory headship qualifications and smaller infant classes - awaits further clarification, legislation, or Santa Claus. Blunkett's real fresh start is his attempt to build a new consensus around the drive to raise standards.

Grasping the post-election mood, he clearly recognises this is his one chance to imbue the professionals with a more optimistic, can-do culture, whatever the difficulties he faces delivering on the promise to link support with pressure. As well as writing to every school in the country and talking to every member of his department - in London, Sheffield and Darlington - about his own vision for the service the Education Secretary is promising a more positive stance from the chief inspector of schools, a recognition that professional morale and esteem need to be restored, a willingness to listen and an acceptance - when addressing teachers, at least - that they are part of the answer, not the problem. The national targets for literacy and numeracy he set this week are his own success criteria and those of his own department; evidence that he is prepared to accept the same discipline he is demanding from schools.

And since he is likely to find the local authorities receptive to his upbeat message - and its clearer role for themselves - he may not need to wait for legislation before pilot work starts on education action zones, benchmarking and target setting become more widespread and appraisal more hard-edged and purposeful.

Where the money will come from to pay for professional development on the scale required, or to restore authorities' support and monitoring roles if school budgets are to be protected, are bridges Blunkett has yet to cross. But his message is clear. Education is being managed again and this time from the top. It is no longer being left to the vagaries either of the market or individual local authorities. David Blunkett could be about to provide stronger national leadership than ever witnessed in the service before.

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