Daunting prospect

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
This morning, Britain awoke to a new Government. But when this week's TES went to press on the eve of the election, the result - although a Labour victory had been widely predicted - was not yet known.

Nevertheless, education has been a key issue in the election campaign as never before - and clearly will continue to be a high-profile policy. Whatever the result that we may now be wildly celebrating or reluctantly coming to terms with, the new Secretary of State, entering his or her office in Sanctuary Buildings for the first time, will be facing the same set of intractable long-standing problems.

This inheritance consists of a creaking, underfunded system with widening disparities in standards between different areas and individual schools; a chronic shortage of books and equipment; serious underachievement among a significant group of disaffected young people - predominantly boys; exhaustion, disillusionment and low morale among teachers; and, above all, a gathering crisis in teacher supply.

During the next five years, unless imaginative and effective steps are quickly taken, four factors are likely to combine to exacerbate a serious shortage of teachers in both primary and secondary schools. First, as TES readers well know, changes in the regulations for early retirement means that this year will see a massive exodus, from both sectors, of senior and experienced practitioners in their fifties. At the other end, it is proving hard to recruit new students into teacher training, especially in certain subjects. This is partly because teaching currently has a depressing and off-putting image, partly because of recurrent media panics sparked off by disruptive pupils, and partly because the end of the recession means that there is now a wider choice of careers for new graduates.

An added complication is the fact that the bulge in pupil numbers - as the result of rising birthrates in the late 1980s - is now moving through to the end of the primary school and will soon require more specialist secondary-level teachers; and the fourth element in the equation is Labour's election commitment to reducing class sizes for the under-sevens, implying the need for an as-yet-uncalculated increase in the number of early-years teachers.

Squeezed education spending has been a fact of life for at least a decade, and Britain now spends less on education as a percentage of its public spending Gross Domestic Product than do 15 or so other developed countries. For a year or two, the imposition of cuts was made easier by ignoring the rise in pupil numbers, and by shifting the responsibility for budgets down to school governors and telling them to balance the books. This manoeuvre has now resulted in bigger classes, crumbling schools and a chronic shortage of school books. These days, British schoolchildren rarely do their homework using textbooks; worksheets tend to be the order of the day.

Today, there is precious little fat in the system left to cut; indeed, long-term underspending now means that some pupils are not receiving the curriculum to which they are legally entitled. If the incoming government seriously wants to raise standards, it is hard to see how it can be done with current levels of spending. At this stage, it will be virtually impossible to squeeze more out of the current system simply by requiring those working in it to raise their game another couple of notches - as has been the case in recent years. As Professor Alan Smithers has pointed out, schools do not just need an adequate supply of teachers; they need high quality teachers, capable of enthusing young people in an era when a vibrant youth culture offers an ever-more seductive alternative to school work.

Britain has for a long time been an under-educated society; even now, it looks as if our education and training targets - already lower than those of many other developed countries - are unlikely to be met by 2000. Although staying-on rates have risen, as have the proportion of young people entering higher education, we still suffer from a lost generation who left school early during the 1980s, received precious little training, and have never had a real or satisfying job.

Sorting out the qualifications maze, in particular the relationship between A-levels, general national vocational qualifications and national vocational qualifications, looks like being a persistent headache, as will the current anomalies in provision for young people aged between 16 and 19 - whether in sixth forms, sixth-form colleges, tertiary colleges or training schemes. Training and enterprise councils have not fulfilled their early promise - yet they remain a crucial part of the equation if we are to tackle the problem of unemployed and undertrained young people - and older ones too.

It's a daunting prospect for any new Secretary of State; revitalising Britain's education system will need not only energy, commitment and strategic thinking but - dare one say it - new money. Effectively targeted, of course.

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