EDUCATION was high on the agenda of the incoming Labour Government. It remained so and will be at the forefront of its next election campaign. So, does Labour's past record give us confidence in future promises?
The principal aim was to drive up abysmally low standards. Sir Claus Moser's report on adult literacy, for example, showed that a large proportion of school-leavers were functionally illiterate. The Third International Mathematics and Science Survey showed how poorly the UK compared with other countries, particularly in maths. Employers complained of low standards of literacy and numeracy. To meet that aim (and those criticisms) several interconnected policies have been pursued.
First, there has been greater focus upon early years. So much of secondary education is remedial action for early failure. But such failure is often related to poverty. Therefore, there is a need for more joined-up government. The pound;500 million Sure Start scheme has brought together education and health in an unprecedented way, against a wider determination to reduce child poverty. Nursery education has been made available for all four-year-olds, and will eventually be available to three-year-olds whose parents want it.
Second, there has been a focus on literacy and numeracy. The literacy hour (now extended to key stage 3) and the numeracy hour are generally regarded as successful. It is claimed that this has had a massive impact upon children's basic literacy and numeracy skills, as they move from primary to secondary. Of course, one needs to be wary of such clear convictions. Which particular group of children has benefited? To what extent is that measured improvement sustained? Are there unintended side-effects? Nonetheless, it would be churlish not to recognise the sense of mission and determination, and the positive achievement of the programme.
Third, the sustained effort to raise standards, especially for disadvantaged young people, has included initiatives aimed at creating learning opportunities. The national mentoring scheme brings undergraduates on a one-to-one mentoring relationship with carefully chosen young people; links between schools and industry are encouraged; there has been a massive increase in learning support assistants; many schools now run highly acclaimed summer schools for those making the transition from primary to secondary; pound;500m from the New Opportunities Fund has supported programmes of out-of-school learning; and so on.
Fourth, this spirit of inclusiveness is extended topost-16 qualifications. There is a determined effort to provide a coherent framework of courses which meets everyone's needs and prepares them for a productive adult life. The rigid and indefensible division between the academic and the vocational is gradually being blurred.
There have inevitably been losers in this shift of resources to the early years and the disadvantaged. The most obvious is higher education. Of course, the Government has encouraged the expansion of higher education but without the resources to ensure the maintenance of quality.
But three cautionary notes. First, nothing of quality can be achieved unless able and committed young people are attracted into teaching and persuaded to stay. The one organisation which is immune to the policy of performance-related pay, namely, the Teacher Training Agency, has singularly failed to ensure an adequate supply of teachers.
But even here the Government can point to reforms which begin to tackle the problem: the introduction of "salaries" for teacher-trainees; a framework of professional development from newly-qualified teacher status to advanced skills teacher and senior management.
Second, however, the Government must attend to the enormous increase in unnecessary bureaucracy which serves only to suffocate initiatives and consumes time and energy. Performance management - with its cascade of targets from government through its agencies to local authorities and then to schools and to teachers, and with its army of inspectors and advisers - is undermining the professional judgments and commitment of teachers who should be seen as the custodians of intellectual and cultural traditions, not the servants of a government mission.
Third, there needs to be a more obvious commitment to the comprehensive ideals which superseded the quite unjustifiable selection at the age of 11. The creation of selective comprehensives makes even less sense than the grammarsecondary modern divide. The next government should readdress the problem of how to provide an education for all young people, with different aspirations and motivations, without resorting to a divisive and demoralising selective system.
Such a reappraisal should not (as too often happens) avoid those philosophical questions about the aims and values of education, the distinctively human form of life which that education should nurture, the kind of society which the educational system should aim to produce. Sadly, that more philosophical and ethical dimension is too often lacking in the drive to greater effectiveness and efficiency.
Richard Pring is professor of educational studies at Oxford University