Comparisons are otiose

15th August 1997 at 01:00
Improving the status of teachers is the best way to restore the profession's shattered morale, argues Roy Hattersley.

Three years ago, in his first speech to the Parliamentary Labour party as shadow education minister, David Blunkett was disarmingly frank about his reasons for supporting the idea of school performance tables. The Conservatives' claim that they were essential to informed parental choice had struck a chord with the voters. The Tory government must be "outflanked".

Since then he has clearly undergone a genuine conversion. For his White Paper, Excellence in Schools - despite its considerable merits - accepts the competitive theory of education of which league tables are a part. Schools - often too diverse to allow legitimate comparison - will be compared. The good will be exalted and the bad excoriated.

The White Paper is based on the assumption that "bad schools" are the products of poor teachers, who too often accept low levels of achievement as the inevitable fate of children from working-class homes.

Certainly there are incompetent teachers who deserve to be sacked. And too little is expected from the sons and daughters of low-income families. But the emphasis on human failure is a convenient way of avoiding difficult questions about resources and organisation.

Some schools are "failing" because they lack essential resources, and the performance of others is depressed because, being secondary moderns in a still selective system, they lack esteem. Leaking roofs and the contempt of peers is a certain prescription for low aspiration in both teachers and pupils.

Unfortunately, the White Paper repeats the mantra that it is "standards not structures" which are important - a catchphrase which originated in The Blair Revolution by Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddell.

What Excellence in Schools has to say about secondary organisation is, in general, far too sensible to need the support of an idea that first appeared in a public relations hand-out, dressed up (though not very convincingly) to look like political philosophy.

David Blunkett's promise to end selection by examination or interview has been kept. Partial selection - 15 per cent of pupils "selected by ability" as encouraged by the 1996 Circular - is to end. The White Paper justifies that decision by quoting (uniquely in my experience) the result of the previous government's consultation. "With only 15 out of l,500 consultees speaking out in favour" of partial selection, it was not difficult to abandon the idea.

The paragraphs on schools admissions policy clearly take some structures very seriously. But when he moves towards what he believes to be potentially less popular changes in organisation, David Blunkett prays the Mandelson-Liddell sophistry in aid.

That takes us back to the proposed split between "community schools" and the "foundation schools" which the grant-maintained schools will become. David Blunkett has argued, for three years, that the two categories are a distinction without a difference - at least in terms of funding.

But in education, distinctions are crucially important. Parents construct a hierarchy of schools in their collective minds. Whatever the value-added league tables may reveal, foundation schools will be regarded as superior to community schools.

The idea that families might choose one or the other because of their rival forms of governance is absurd. Even the foundation schools will be only the runners-up in the race for esteem.

First place will be shared by the city technology colleges and what the White Paper calls "magnets for excellence" - schools which specialise in technology, language, sports or arts. It is impossible to imagine how such schools can exist without selection of some sort. By "creaming off", they will diminish the performance and the status of the schools around them.

The fear that selection is not quite dead is increased by the assertion that "where a school is over-subscribed, there must be clear and fair criteria for deciding (sic) applications." If interviews and exams are ruled out, what criteria - apart from siblings and proximity - can there be?

Excellence in Schools proudly announces its refusal to "defend the failings of across-the-board mixed-ability teaching". Unfortunately it does not attempt to calculate how much of it goes on, and how great the failings are.

Most secondary schools believe that setting is best for mathematics and English - rightly the subjects which concern the White Paper most. In other subjects mixed-ability teaching, demanding though it is on teachers, has proved a great success. Elevating that form of classroom grouping into a major obstacle to excellence is just a sophisticated way of attacking "trendy teaching methods", a horror which was largely invented to attract middle-class voters.

Paragraph 4.3 of the White Paper makes a grudging acknowledgement of teachers' status. "We do not believe that any single model of grouping pupils should be imposed on secondary schools."

Unfortunately it goes on to insist that "unless a school can demonstrate that it is getting better than expected results through a different approach, we do make the assumption that setting should be the norm". Note the obligation to do better than expected.

Unless teachers' free choice of mixed ability produces abnormally good results, they must face the wrath of chief inspector Chris Woodhead. Threats are no way in which to treat a profession whose co-operation is essential to success.

The real test of the Government's respect for the teachers is the way in which their "professional status (is) underlined by the establishment of a General Teaching Council". The General Medical Council and the Law Society - with which the White Paper compares the GTC - is of the profession as well as for the profession.

If David Blunkett wants to restore teachers' shattered morale, he should give them the power of regulation that doctors and lawyers now enjoy. That - and a real investment in education - is far more likely to improve standards than the threats and challenges which characterise too much of Excellence in Schools.

Roy Hattersley is a former deputy leader of the Labour party

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