Breathtaking pace of change in 10 days

16th May 1997 at 01:00
"It may feel like 10 years, but in fact I've only been in the job for 10 days," says David Blunkett. But the relaxed way in which he leans back on the sofa in his new office shows that he already feels comfortably ensconced on the seventh floor of the Department for Education and Employment - as does Lucy his guide dog, who dozes in the corner with one ear cocked to catch anything interesting.

The man who holds the future of British education in his hands seems quite undaunted by the prospect. He answers questions unhesitatingly and at length, giving the impression that his answers have been long mulled over. Often the details of individual policies have yet to be worked through, but when a gap threatens to emerge he moves smoothly to another aspect of policy, giving the impression of a total picture in which different strategies lock together to form a coherent whole.

The ministers of state, he points out, have been in post for less than a week. But he and his team are pushing ahead with their blueprint for education in England and Wales with breathtaking determination. Not only is Blunkett moving fast, but he is pressing forward on several different fronts. In line with the general approach of New Labour, there is the sense of a strong hand on the tiller.

Blunkett is in favour of consultation and openness - but it's not a soft option.

For instance, the timing of the White Paper means that much of the consultation will inevitably take place over the summer holidays. And teachers, parents and communities who want their opinions to be taken seriously, he implies, will have to put in the hard graft. "It's been suggested that I ought to make consultative visits to campsites in France, and gites. It's an excellent idea - I'm working on it".

His commitment to raising standards is undoubted. "Urban education in Britain faces a bigger crisis than in other parts of Europe and in the world," he says. "There has been 'Can't do, things cannot be improved' syndrome, which we need to overcome very rapidly". Education action zones will enable resources to be targeted where they are most needed, he says - and in those areas, local education authorities, parents, governors and schools will need to work together. "We will be asking LEAs to come forward with their future development plans. If they refuse to acknowledge that they have problems, then we will have a wide range of interventions - but we would rather do it as partners".

He hopes that local authorities will see the push to raise standards as a "promise rather than a threat". And the strongest dual theme, which he reiterates, is that of "pressure and support". There will be increased pressure to raise standards, but also extra support for LEAs, schools and individual teachers who are having difficulties. He may hope to achieve his aims wearing a velvet glove - but the iron fist will be brought into play if necessary.

There is a similarly firm message in relation to OFSTED - whose controversial chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, has had a stormy relationship with the educational establishment.

"I have had the opportunity of talking to him about how the work of OFSTED, and how we can use (it) effectively in dovetailing with the standards and effectiveness unit and the targets we've set," says David Blunkett. "And I've said that what I wish to see - and he agrees entirely - is to develop a proactive and positive consensus around the kind of changes that we believe are possible. It's a chance for a new beginning. ".

Inspection, he believes, need not be seen as a threat. "When I've gone into schools that are succeeding, their fear of inspection, their worry about external forces, is diminished because they believe in themselves, they have confidence. One of the key messages we want to get across is that the profession needs to have confidence in itself. Teachers in schools are the solution, not the problem".

But, in spite of the policies he is working away at - the task forces and special unit; the hit squads and the powers to close schools; the cuts in class sizes and the new qualification for headteachers - he knows that none of it will work if he cannot enthuse the teachers. He intends to do this is not only by celebrating their achievement s but by building up more tangible forms of support. There will be more in-service training (funded from the mid-week lottery money); and a General Teaching Council - which, David Blunkett is sure, will raise teachers' professional esteem. The new standards and effectiveness unit will spread good practice and target help when it's required.

"The free market can stimulate debate and threaten failure," he says, " but it can't intervene to positively change. The minute people feel that they are getting the direction and the support they need, I'm sure they'll respond positively. But if people simply say 'Nothing can really make a difference, there cannot be positive change, we're doing everything that is possible already' - then we're dead in the water".

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