Blitz on standards signals end of honeymoon

5th September 1997 at 01:00
The Government intends to set a hectic pace in education this autumn, at a time when its honeymoon period with schools may have come to an end. As well as major legislation that will take up Commons time, ministers are keen to present an offensive against schools that are performing badly, once account is taken of their intake.

Data collected by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to set national benchmarks will allow officials to identify schools that are underperforming compared with others which have a similar pupil intake. Those schools are to be set targets that will be more closely monitored, both by central Government and local education authorities.

The importance the Prime Minister attaches to raising standards was intended to be signalled yesterday by the hosting of an education summit at Number Ten. Invitations in the main went to heads and academics who have had experience of tackling failing or poorly performing schools. The agenda included the problem of teacher recruitment, particularly to headships, and responses to the White Paper on schools.

As well as the summit, there are to be seven regional conferences to gather views on the White Paper before the consultation period ends on October 7.

Chief education officers are now warning that the proposal that schools be re-organised into three categories is likely to create problems. Consultation on the framework document, that sets out proposals for foundation, aided and community schools, ends on October 13.

However, a more immediate political problem when the Commons resumes for business in October is the level of opposition on the Labour back benches to the introduction of the student contribution to tuition fees in universities.

Labour MPs are likely to press for assurances that any further changes in the level of support for students would not be implemented without a Commons debate.

David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, is keen to focus on school initiatives. Local authorities are to be encouraged to develop schools improvement targets in advance of statutory requirements to be imposed from next year.

Ministers have also to produce their blueprint for speeding up the dismissal of teachers deemed to be incompetent. The requirement on school inspectors to grade teachers is expected to produce more accurate assessments of the number of weak teachers in the system.

For Stephen Byers, the minister for school standards, the problem remains of tackling the 18 schools that were given three months to show significant improvement. A number have produced evidence of better performance, but for the others, Mr Byers will have to announce further measures.

The inspection of local education by the Office for Standards in Education will mean the production of a report on Birmingham. The city's chief education officer, Tim Brighouse, is also deputy chair of the Government's task force on raising standards.

Ministers intend later this year to publish more detail on plans to set up education action zones, Clusters of schools will be identified and an action plan drafted in consultation with the Department for Education and Employment's standards and effectiveness unit.

On employment and training, there is unlikely to be any let-up in the pace being set by ministers on education.

A White Paper on lifelong learning, due in late November or early December, will encompass Labour's plans for "learning accounts" to encourage training.

Announcements are also due on another Government creation, the University for Industry.

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