Blunkett pledges to heal rifts

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
David Blunkett has promised that Labour would reunite a divided education service, where competition has set "school against school and community against community".

Speaking at a hastily-arranged "education summit" attended by Labour leader Tony Blair, he also promised to cut through the administrative confusion of government and listen to the voices of teachers and academics.

In his last set speech before the election, Labour's education and employment spokesman said that the main priorities would be to rebuild a consensus that market-driven policies have destroyed.

"We have had a divided service based on the idea that conflict and market ideas will raise standards, " he said, addressing a specially-selected audience of headteachers and academics in a London hotel.

"It has set school against school and community against community. It's a crazy way, and it clearly doesn't work. How can we change the culture; how can we inspire progress? Education is even better than winning on the National Lottery because it lets people find success for themselves."

He acknowledged, however, that life in government would bring different problems, and promised to listen to voices outside the official circles.

"The first challenge would be how, as Secretary of State, surrounded by a department, do we hear what's going on and reflect that in a way that is possible in opposition? At the moment it's only me and my staff, getting out and hearing the things that people tell us."

The 50 invited participants threw an interesting light on current Labour thinking. They included David Marquand, principal of Mansfield College, Oxford; Sir Tim Lankester, former permanent secretary at the Department for Education and now director of London University's School of Oriental and African Studies; David Mallen, Tim Brighouse and Philip Hunter, directors of education in East Sussex Birmingham and Staffordshir e; David Cragg, in charge of Birmingham's training and enterprise council; Helena Kennedy, the civil rights lawyer and Professors David Reynolds and Michael Barber who head up Labour's numeracy and literacy "task forces".

There was also an contingent of headteachers from schools in socially-trouble d areas: Labour is particularly keen to suggest that concern for educational achievement does not involve neglecting the poor: in Tony Blair's words, "education is social justice".

Sue Pearson from Lache Infants School in Chester, where 70 per cent of the pupils receive free school meals, said a structured approach to lifting reading standards - in line with Labour policy - led to a 35 per cent improvement in just one year. Now, she said, the school has 85 per cent of its 11-year-olds reading at level five or above.

There were other success stories but the questions of basic resourcing surfaced.

Tim Lankester attacked the financial squeeze on higher education and said that current spending plans are wholly inadequate. David Mallen pleaded for more spending on children's mental health. Kate Frood from Kentish Town primary in London insisted that schools in deprived circumstances need more spending as a priority.

Helena Kennedy pointed to the "shocking" inequity of a system which lavishes money on higher education while further education suffers. It is, she said, a matter of social cohesion.

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