A gallery of oblique ambitions

22nd July 2005 at 01:00
Ministers' depictions of future progress are short on coherence, writes Martin Rogers

As those in the education world turn their thoughts to summer holidays, here's an idea for how they could spend time on the beach: drawing lines in the sand.

And not just any old lines. This should be an exercise in amalgamating the drawings and diagrams that have emerged from the Department for Education and Skills recently in a bid to join up the various strands that now constitute government policy for children, young people and their families.

Brave attempts all, but still they fail to provide a complete, coherent picture.

It may be claimed that these strands are already consistent, heading in the same direction, but a simple exercise will illustrate the problem. If you draw a couple of lines a short distance apart along the beach and look back along them they will appear to converge. But actually they do not. Parallel lines never meet.

The move from a singular focus on raising standards - marked by a significant shift from new Labour's early mantra, "for the many not the few" to "excellence for all" - and more recently to the five outcomes of Every Child Matters has led to a widespread perception (officially denied) of a tension between the main advocates of each approach.

The focus on standards is plainly not delivering success for all. Yet to question aspects of this approach is to invite the accusation of being "soft on standards", which is both offensive and self-defeating. In truth, unless some of the difficulties that remain largely intractable are resolved, success for all will continue to elude us, and many of those affected will continue to be failed by the system - which should be serving them better - to the detriment of us all.

The fact that a small number of schools have been able largely to buck the national trend does not, unfortunately, mean it is just a matter of persistence to make this success universal.

So, what are the issues that must be addressed differently? The unresolved problems are the following:

* Schools are expected to operate with increasing autonomy and individuality, to collaborate and share resources and deliver personalised learning to a wide range of pupils - but to do so in a persistently competitive, market-based system.

* Limited, albeit increased, resources need to be more effectively focused on the disadvantaged, yet demand for security of funding is leading to flat-rate increases that limit scope for redirection.

* The relentless focus - in England - on testing, and specifically on five A*-C grades at GCSE as virtually the only measure of success, still leads to almost half of pupils "failing" after 11 years' compulsory schooling.

This is hugely demotivating.

* Demand for places in "good" schools in areas with real choice outstrips supply, and recent political rhetoric exacerbates this situation, largely resolved in favour of the more advantaged.

* The welcome shift towards bringing together universal and targeted services, with greater emphasis on successful early intervention, and preventative strategies to reduce the greater costs of later remediation, imply a shift of resources - or a further increase - if it is to succeed.

* Finally, at best there has been a damaging ambivalence to the role of local government - progressively marginalised in respect of education but thrust to centre-stage in the delivery of partnership arrangements for children's services and social and economic regeneration.

Changing this requires a clearer "big picture" that is more frankly and successfully described - for those expected to deliver services and those using and paying for them. In particular, there is a need for a more powerful long-term vision of the future and of the part everybody needs to play to achieve it.

This might include the aspiration that within a decade or so all children, young people, their families and society could look forward to a more widespread acceptance of the importance of being physically, mentally and emotionally healthy; of being protected from harm and neglect; of learning throughout life; of contributing positively to society; and of benefiting from social and economic well-being.

It is hard to imagine anyone being opposed to such an ideal because we would all benefit. The trick is to persuade everyone that they need to contribute.

For the thinkers in the DfES, this means a more forthright description of the balance between the gains and relative contributions required of those to whom this paradigm already largely applies. This requires a rigorous appraisal of the current policy strands that impede progress in that direction. This, after all, is only fair on those people - teachers, school leaders and local authority and health service managers - expected to deliver it.

If the Government fails to draw such a coherent picture, these frontline foot soldiers will surely be justified in drawing their own metaphorical lines after the summer and demanding a greater measure of realism from their political masters and mistresses about what is expected of them.

Martin Rogers is co-ordinator of the Education Network (TEN), an independent information and policy unit that supports local education authorities

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