Age of Achievement is there for the taking

11th October 1996 at 01:00
There are those who claim Tony Blair's success results from talking in generalisations to which everyone warms. They argue that he can never be tied down to specifics. "What would Labour really do?" they ask sceptically.

I have never understood this line of criticism. Labour's policies have rarely been so clearly spelt out before an election. Not everyone will agree with them, of course, but they are there in black and white. Indeed, Tony Blair's success, in my view, results not from vagueness, but from saying exactly what he means and meaning exactly what he says. Surely, after his conference speech last week few can doubt that.

In that speech, he made clear commitments which broke new ground. He promised that spending on education would rise as a proportion of national income. Teachers and parents who have campaigned for extra investment in education over the past two years should be dancing in the streets - and then preparing to hold Blair to his commitment.

He promised that his top three priorities in government would be "education, education and education". After decades in which this society and successive governments have seen education as a marginal activity, Tony Blair is promising to put it at the heart of what he would call "the new Labour project". Teachers and parents should be preparing to hold him to that commitment too. All of us in public services are accountable these days: all the more reason why we should firmly hold a prime minister to account.

These commitments are not made lightly. Ask any of the lobby groups or indeed shadow cabinet members who have been knocking in vain on Blair's door for the past two years. It was Aneurin Bevan who said socialism was the language of priorities. His modern-day successors have taken him at his word and put education top of the list.

They have done so because they believe that both the economy and society as a whole depend upon achieving much higher educational standards. In other words, the new investment and new priority will be accompanied by an unrelenting pressure for improvement.

Standards have undoubtedly risen in the past decade - whatever measure is taken - but few would claim they have risen enough. Standards at the end of compulsory schooling still fall short of leading competitors such as Germany and Japan, particularly in the core subjects of the national language and mathematics. Standards in literacy and numeracy at the end of primary school have not changed much over 30 years and may recently have slightly declined. Standards in inner urban areas are too low but as a result of the efforts of authorities like Birmingham, Newcastle and Tower Hamlets, they are beginning to rise even against the social odds.

Underlying these stark truths is the huge range in performance among schools of similar types. At GCSE, for example, in some schools with over 50 per cent of pupils on free school meals, over 40 per cent of pupils are achieving five higher grades at GCSE, while the comparable figure in other similar schools is less than 10 per cent. A similar picture emerges in the KS2 test data. This range surely cannot be justified. It is becoming a cliche to comment on "the long tail of underachievement" in this country, but it remains the most potent fact in the standards debate.

Generalising ruthlessly, the Government's explanation for this state of affairs has been that teachers are to blame, while teacher leaders have blamed a combination of underfunding and an excess of change.

The question Blair's speech raises is whether, if Labour is elected, a more constructive relationship between government and teachers can be established.

A newly elected government should, of course, be in a strong position to - in the American phrase - start over. It can blame its predecessors for its errors. It can usher in a new climate for policymaking. Confusion later can be avoided if, from the outset, there is clarity about what is non-negotiable. such as, in Blair's case, the drive to improve literacy and raise standards would be.

Beyond these central objectives, a dialogue with the profession is essential and an incoming Labour government would need to open up the channels of communication which have been blocked by the detritus of the conflicts of the early 1990s. The establishment of a General Teaching Council - a promise confirmed last week by David Blunkett - could be the key here.

Whatever an incoming government does, however, much will depend on how teachers and their leaders respond to the new opportunities. Denying there is a standards problem or hoping for a return to the comfortable mediocrity of the past will cut no ice. The psychology of change is surely the key. Over the past decade, change has been perceived as a threat or an attack. This has applied psychologically even when a change has ultimately turned out to be for the best. Given the approach of some of Gillian Shephard's predecessors, this negative attitude to change is perhaps hardly surprising, but its consequences have been disastrous.

It has meant that ministers have become so used to a chorus of disapproval that they now assume it confirms their views. Worse still, the profession has talked down its own morale when it ought to have been marvelling at its success in implementing a mass of change.

This in part explains the paradox of teacher morale. In general, people say teacher morale these days is at rock bottom; but set foot in any number of improving schools and what emerges is a different picture: teachers confident of their capabilities, proud of their achievements and working with relish towards ever higher standards.

In short, teachers and their leaders too must play their part in changing the climate. This means celebrating and recognising successes; acknowledging openly and squaring up courageously to failure. And it means perceiving change not necessarily as a step away from a golden past but as a step towards a better future. An Age of Achievement is there for the taking.

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