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Ready for challenges ahead

Teachers have helped to deliver four years of real improvement in schools, argues Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett.

EFACED some big problems four years ago: rising class sizes, crumbling schools, falling teacher numbers. Funding had just been cut by pound;120 per pupil in the previous Parliament. While not every problem has yet been solved, I'm proud of what we have achieved. There remain big challenges ahead, but the foundations for the future have been laid. Sure Start and greatly improved nursery provision are already making a difference. Primary schools have been transformed through hard work from teachers and assistants. We need to do more on writing - but the results are better and class sizes are smaller.

Schools have pound;540 more per pupil after inflation, with greater financial freedom. We are spending three times as much as the Tories on capital projects - on school buildings - and ten times as much on tackling truancy and indiscipline. There are 12,600 more teachers in post than in 1998 and most schools are linked to the Internet, with more computers. We are much better placed to meet the challenges of today as a result.

We were criticised for being tough on failing schools, with new two-year deadlines. Only 27 had been turned around before 1997. Since then, heads and teachers have, with the backing of education authorities, turned around 712. A further 100 have closed and 25 more have had a Fresh Start. The success of the overall policy offers important lessons in helping schools experiencing weakness to avoid sliding into failure in the years ahead.

Teaching standards have improved, with the biggest ever improvements recorded by the Office for Standards in Education in its latest annual report. We have improved teachers' pay - particularly for experienced teachers with performance-related promotion. Yes, there are certainly difficulties recruiting teachers in some schools, but training salaries halted a slide in training numbers - and, with more money in the system, many more posts have been created. Despite more teachers in the classroom, there are more vacancies. We are focusing our efforts - with the various incentives now in place - on helping heads to fill these posts.

There have been real improvements in GCSE results, especially among working-class and many ethnic minority students. Excellence in Cities has proved enormously popular in backing challenging but achievable targets with extra resources for mentors, gifted pupils and discipline. Beacon schools are spreading good practice.

I know there has been controversy about our secondary proposals. We envisage a future where "every school has a distinct ethos, mission and character" and where education meets the talents and needs of every individual pupil. We've trebled the number of specialist schools to nearly 600, with plans for 1,500 by 2006. There are some secondaries where we ned first to focus on improving standards. There are others that may not want to specialise. That is not a limit, but a milestone. I see no reason why any other school that is ready and willing to do so should not become a specialist school.

However, we need to do more to reform secondary schools. The challenge between 11 and 14 is as great as that which we faced in primary schools, although it has different solutions. The new key stage 3 strategies have proved popular in the pilots and with the extra money I announced recently will, from September, become part of secondary schools' agenda for raising standards. I make no apology for including those words that pupils commonly spell wrongly in an appendix: it is quite absurd to suggest this list is anything else. However, this will be a flexible phased strategy, which should both cater for students' different abilities and support teachers in addressing the needs of this very different age group.

We have made progress on vocational education, but not enough. I want to see the vocational option from 14 being as strong as the academic option is now - with maybe four times as many young people taking this route as do so now. That is essential for otherwise disaffected youngsters, but as important for those who would prefer to do an apprenticeship rather than A-levels.

With more education maintenance allowances and the Connexions programme for personal support and careers guidance, young people are getting the backing they need to move on to post-16 education and university. Pupil learning credits from September and opportunity bursaries will help, too. Having reversed funding cuts in the university sector, there is no reason for any young person with the right aptitude not to take advantage of the new opportunities.

In the coming weeks, the Conservatives will tell you that you cut red tape by forcing primary heads to run school buses, or that money already in school budgets can be delegated twice. The Liberal Democrats will attempt to spend a penny three times over. With Labour, we made promises, which we have kept. My one lasting regret is that we haven't yet seen the improvements transform the morale of teachers. I hope the review process we have now started will help us get the right balance between workload and accountability. But while we can all wish we could have done more, I hope the changes we have made together will be remembered for the true transformation we have begun.

I am proud of what we have been able to do together in the past four years - and I thank each and every one of you for your contribution to improving standards for all our children. I hope that in the years ahead, we shall be able to continue to celebrate the success of the heroes - heads, teachers and other school staff - who are making a real difference to the lives of our children day in, day out.

Specialist schools, 24-25

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