Brown must add vision and courage to his passion

13th July 2007 at 01:00
Michael Duffy is a former headteacher and member of the New Vision Group

The Prime Minister has said he is "passionate" about education. Well so are we and we are taking him at his word. A previous administration would have written us off as too close to the profession, compromised by our experience and knowledge, but as parents and teachers, heads and academics, we are unapologetically committed to the best possible public education.

We recognise how much has been achieved since 1997 and welcome the improvements that better funding and better targeting have brought. Building Schools for the Future promises more public capital expenditure than we have seen for a generation, and that we applaud.

Yet real concerns remain. Why are heads and teachers not in better heart? Why is so much of what happens in schools dictated from the centre? Why is there so much emphasis on diversity and choice in the face of evidence that shows that it is overwhelmingly the middle classes, already favoured by the system, who benefit most from it? Why are we so distrustful of local accountability? Why have we allowed the curriculum (and sometimes the teaching) to be narrowed by excessive testing and an obsession with league tables? Above all, how is it that we have failed to close the gap in attainment between the most disadvantaged pupils and all the rest? From early years onwards, we should be raising standards for all pupils: too often, we focus wastefully on the winners.

These questions are linked, and the Government's reversal of its 1997 promise to focus on standards, not structures, runs like a thread across them. Our letter to Gordon Brown addresses each issue in turn, acknowledging the foundations for reform that the Government has laid, identifying the unintended outcomes of well-meant but sometimes short-sighted changes, and suggesting strategies that may help to put things right.

Why not have a "kitemark" for schools that achieve good progress across the ability range and do well with disadvantaged pupils? It could be the precondition for grants from the personalised learning budget a financial incentive to get the priorities right. But it would also need a re-think of the proposed pupil progress tables to take account of the slower progress that lower-achieving pupils are likely to make. If this doesn't happen, schools will be further discouraged from investing time and resources in pupils who most need them, another perverse incentive.

The curriculum is a case in point. It is too narrow, too prescribed and shaped by a national perspective that appears, in a globally conscious world, increasingly parochial. It is narrow within subjects as well as across them. Teaching to the test limits what teachers are capable of and reduces the pupils' aspirations and range of achievements. So we see great advantage in removing some or all of the key stages 1 and 3 tests and AS levels in Year 12, and in making greater use of sampling in individual pupil assessment.

The most critical area is 14-19. There is much that promises, but also real tension between the partnership promised among the various providers of education and training and competition between them (admission arrangements and funding streams) that really happens. There is also a problem with qualifications and a danger that the diplomas starting in 2008 will reinforce the damaging division between academic and vocational routes and will not have credibility with employers and higher education.

Here, too, the attainment gap needs closing. Young people with learning difficulties are ill-served by inflexible and narrow standards, inappropriate targets, assessments and provision. Our hope is that the new Prime Minister will have the courage and vision to address our concerns. To that end, we pledge him our support.

Educational Priorities for a Passionate PM, edited by Michael Duffy (New Vision Group), is available free of charge. Email:

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