The unions and teachers may plead for a respite from reform, but New Labour in its second term looks set to pursue many of the tough policies which so upset them in the first. Jon Slater reports on what to expect if the party wins the next election
AS LABOUR members gather in Bournemouth this weekend, there will be more attempts by the rank-and-file to shift the party's policies to the left. But the most interesting action will be away from the ritual battles and set-piece speeches on the conference floor as, behind the scenes, Labour's plans for a second term take shape.
In sharp contrast to other policy areas, Labour went into the last election with a relatively detailed set of proposals for education. And, although there have been changes (notably the introduction of tuition fees for undergraduates), it has spent the last two-and-a half years putting these into practice.
Reform of the teaching profession is under way and the class-size pledge and literacy and numeracy targets look set to be achieved by the next election. Post-16 education is about to undergo a major reorganisation with the creation of new learning and skills councils and tuition fees for undergraduates are in place. So where do they go from here?
One obvious area is secondary schools. In its first two years, the Government concentrated on raising standards in the early-years and in primary schools. Without the building-blocks, it argues, any attempt to improve secondary education will be an uphill battle.
But with the foundations laid, it now intends to turn its attention to older pupils. This is underlined in a consultation document issued by Labour's education and employment policy commission, which asks party members for their views for the next manifesto. It specifically asks for ideas to motivate under-achieving secondary pupils.
Ministers are particularly concerned that children fail to progress, and in some cases go backwards, during the first few years of secondary school. Research shows this is when pupils often become disaffected.
Michael Barber, head of the Government's standards unit, is known to have been impressed by research from Australia proposing whole-school solutions, a slimmed-down curriculum and teachers dedicated to pupils aged 9-14.
Joe Hallgarten, education research fellow at the Institute of Public Policy Research, a left-leaning think-tank with close links with Labour, believes that ministers may go even further. "There could be an impetus to introduce vocational options at key stage 3," he said.
A major theme underlying secondary changes is likely to be increasing diversity within the comprehensive system. The specialist schools initiative, which allows comprehensives to select a minority of pupils by aptitude, will be expanded further. By early in the next parliament a quarter of secondaries could be specialist schools.
Mr Hallgarten also thinks that the Government will continue to push back the boundaries of private-sector involvement in education.
Public-private partnerships for new buildings and repairs have been less successful in education than in other areas, notably health. This week, Alan Millburn, the Treasury minister, launched a new commission based at the IPPR to improve the way such partnerships work. But if the initiative is to take off, sceptical local authorities and schools will need to be convinced that it will work.
And local education authorities which fail to raise their game under pressure from the Office for Standards in Education could be in for a nasty shock. The Government is unlikely to let teething problems in Hackney deter it from increasingly calling in the private sector. "I don't think the Government has gone as far as it is likely to with LEAs," said Mr Hallgarten.
Attracting private firms into post-16 education will also be an aim. Tertiary education action zones will be introduced in an attempt to pull together colleges and the community in disadvantaged areas.
The idea is to encourage colleges in urban areas to merge or work more closely with each other, the community and local business to increase participation and tackle educational under-achievement.
Gordon Marsden, Labour member of the education select committee, would like to see the zones include universities. He suggests "pilots in areas of the country where we desperately need to increase the numbers moving from further to higher education".
Post-16 education will get a further boost by plans to give every child an individual learning account into which the Government will pay up to pound;200 each year - depending on the young person's family income. This could give young people from poorer backgrounds a nest-egg of around pound;7,000 - which could then be used to pay for college courses or degree studies.
But Labour still sees the early years as the key to improving skill-levels in Britain. A poll of 30 Labour MPs by The TES earlier this year found more than four in five in favour of extending the maximum classes of 30 to all primary children.
The next manifesto will see further initiatives designed to boost nursery education and out-of-school clubs. There is likely to be a commitment to make nursery education available to all three-year-olds whose parents want it.
But if the reforms are to succeed, the Government will need to earn teachers' support. Richard Margrave of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers points to the "serious underlying problem" of teacher morale and the need to attract new recruits.
"I don't think the problem will be solved in the first term. We need to recast teaching and how you approach recruiting people - a few more carrots and less stick will be needed for the future."
The continuing problems of teacher recruitment could mean an expanded role for classroom assistants - particularly if the new higher pay-scale for classroom teachers fails to attract enough new recruits.
In a move sure to spark controversy, information technology could allow classroom assistants to take control of some classes, giving qualified teachers extra preparation time or the chance to give individual pupils more attention.
So, while many of these ideas may be welcome, teachers hoping for a period of rest from new initiatives look set to be disappointed. The message from ministers is the revolution continues. FIVE POSSIBILITIES FOR A SECOND TERM
* Nursery education for all three-year-olds whose parents want it
* New focus on
11- to 14-year-olds
* New schools to be built using public-
* Education action zones for further
raise standards in under-performing areas
Learning Accounts for all children,
ultimately giving 18-year-olds up to pound;7,000 to spend on education