A new set of building blocks

9th May 1997 at 01:00
The resounding clarity of the general election result confirms that it is now time to clear the rubble and to make a fresh start.

The first priority of the new Government are our school buildings, which are currently a national disgrace. Labour must set out a programme of improvement, replacement and renewal. At the very least, it must, without delay, set up a Pounds 3 billion programme to reduce the backlog on health and safety and repair and maintenance work.

Second, the causes of educational failure must be considered, and reflected in action and expenditure. We know that the differences between schools, though important, are insignificant compared with the differences caused by poverty and lack of pre-school provision.

We should rebuild from the foundations, and that means nursery education. The withdrawal of the disgraceful voucher arrangements and the return of the SSA funding to local authorities will be vital in securing the existing pattern of excellent nursery school and nursery class provision. We need to build on that, locally and nationally, to create a unified system of nursery education that can meet the changing patterns of family life and work.

The most pressing, and seemingly intractable, problem confronts us at key stages 2 and 3, with the difficulties of transition to secondary education. What are the adverse characteristics that 11-year-old children bring with them, or begin to develop, at Key Stage 3 that halt or even reverse their progress, and inevitably hold back their attainment and motivation at age 16? It may be that we need radical change to abolish the key stage 23 divide and substitute a single stage that crosses the traditional 11-plus fault-line in English education.

My next priority - reform of the school inspection system - should provide significant sums of money. There have been a sufficient number of inspections, and enough information has been gathered, to enable a reasonable process of self-evaluation and external support to operate for the foreseeable future.

The Government should, therefore, suspend school inspections for the next six-year cycle and transfer that funding to school improvement. The inspection cycle can always be re-introduced. Some of the funding released should be dedicated to the strengthening of Her Majesty's Inspectorate.

These inspection changes alone should release well over Pounds 100 million annually over a six-year period. There will also be funding made available from the termination of the bureaucratic costs of nursery vouchers.

Urgent action is needed for the post-14 stage, not only to progress the vocational education curriculum but to deal with disaffected young people.

Above all, the Government must create a new sense of community in the education service. Rebuilding the community spirit requires action rather than words. Certainly, a useful beginning would be the inclusion in the Government's new Education Act of a duty on all schools, and indeed all partners in the education service, to collaborate in the best interests of pupils and their families.

Governing bodies - whose support to schools has been of vital importance in recent years - must be made to feel valued, rather than left to believe that they are a mechanism for the distribution of budget cuts.

Parents, crucially, must be drawn much more into active participation in the education of their children in home-school liaison and home reading programmes. An important theme of the Labour party while it was in opposition was the inextricable nature of parental rights and responsibilities. Now is the time to develop these ideas to mobilise parental support and create the conditions that teachers and schools expect.

Addressing the issue of teacher recruitment, retention and morale is, of course, a serious challenge. Progress does not lie in fiddling around with the details of initial and in-service training arrangements. A proper programme for valuing and funding schools and their teachers - and their re-engagement in a positive process of continuous improvement - will do far more.

We must believe that the long war in the education service is at an end and that a period of peace and radical reconstruction is at hand.

Keith Mitchell is director of education for County Durham

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