Dogmatic on goals, pragmatic on means

23rd June 1995 at 01:00
Tony Blair looks forward to a Labour Government passionate about education. This week, David Blunkett outlined Labour's proposals for the organisation of schooling: local education authorities dedicated to raising standards, schools free to run their own affairs, parents more involved in the education of their children.

All schools will be funded equitably, with the work of the Funding Agency for Schools devolved to LEAs. A minimum of 90 per cent of budgets will be delegated to schools, with further discussion about how to pay for essential common services like those for special needs or raising standards. Admissions policies will be agreed by local consensus, with appeal to independent arbitration in cases of disagreement.

These issues of school organisation are important. But it is a British disease to be obsessed with institutions to the neglect of what goes on inside them: what is right, what is wrong, what needs doing. I want a Labour government to lead a national drive for educational improvement, modernising the comprehensive system to achieve its goal of high standards for all.

Of course, there are good things in our education system. Enter most schools or colleges, and you will find many things to admire: skilled teachers, better performance at GCSE, higher participation after 16 and a doubling of higher education participation. But research shows that 3,000 schools are poor or failing. At 21, one in five people has trouble with maths, and one in seven has trouble reading.

Our international deficit is stark. At GCSE, the percentage getting grades A-C in maths, national language and one science in the UK is about half that in France and Germany. At A-level at 18 or 19, about 36 per cent get two A-levels or the equivalent compared to more than 60 per cent in Germany and France and 80 per cent in Japan.

While the old Left emphasised support for schools without sufficient pressure on them to succeed, and the new Right thought that the solution was pressure without support, we need both. Pressure means pupils, teachers, schools and LEAs setting targets for improvement; it means the publication of meaningful performance data, proper school inspection and teacher appraisal, rigorous pupil assessment, and intervention when schools are failing.

To question the performance of a few teachers is not to attack the whole profession: if we are honest about the minority who are not performing well, we can talk more proudly of the good job done by the vast majority. Meanwhile, support means not just proper funding, but valued teachers, professional development, extra-curricular activity, follow-through from inspections, parental and community involvement and national leadership. All are vital.

We need to start with primary education, for a long time a poor relation in the education system. In fact it is the foundation of a successful system. We must help every child tie down the basics, which is why the end of Department for Education support for the Reading Recovery scheme, a pioneering programme that held out the hope of a literacy guarantee to seven-year-olds, is so detrimental.

But we also need to promote faster and further learning. "Baseline" assessment of five-year-olds is being pioneered in a number of LEAs, taking an initial view of strengths and weaknesses and shaping teaching accordingly. It is time for the development of national guidelines for this sort of work.

Differences in capability need to be addressed, and "setting" in different subjects, or "target grouping" as they call it in Nottingham, has a role to play. "Target groups" can consist of those particularly good in a subject, those with a special interest in a subject (in Nottingham there are special science lessons for girls) as well as those with particular difficulty at school. We should be dogmatic about our goal of the highest possible performance from every child, but pragmatic about the means to achieve it. Whole-class teaching, group work and individual tuition all have a place.

There are other issues raised by the 1992 report of the "Three Wise Men", of which we now hear little. For example, they described the shortage of subject expertise at primary level as "acute". Work by the National Foundation for Educational Research shows that teachers would welcome educational material to bring them up to speed, and we should give it to them.

The second big issue we must confront is our culture of low expectations at 16-plus. A recent Briefing for the National Commission on Education says the focus of policy must shift from quantity to quality, "from the number of students to the value and relevance of their educational experience, and to their rates of completion, attainment and progression". It is right.

Our aim can be stated simply: a system of post-16 study that allows every young person to combine academic and vocational study according to aptitude and interest. We need to broaden the academic track, upgrade vocational alternatives, and develop compatible curriculum structures and common principles of assessment that promote not just flexibility between academic and vocational options, but the combination of academic and vocational study.

Finally, there is the position of teachers themselves. When I speak to teachers in Britain, they use words like excluded, misunderstood, misrepresented, undermined. They feel that for too long government has refused to listen. A symbol of change under Labour will be the establishment of a General Teaching Council. For the first time, teachers would have an organisation representing their professional status, committed to raising the stature and quality of teaching.

Last year I launched a proposal for the development of an "associate teacher" grade - people from the community who offer expert input in the classroom under the guidance of the class teacher. Today, many teachers, perhaps one or two in every school, achieve outstanding results on appraisal, get top marks in school inspections and act as mentors to younger teachers. They do not want to go into management, yet they feel their achievement is not recognised.

That is why we will be investigating the establishment of an "expert teacher" grade in the profession. It would be designed for teachers who are a credit to the profession, an example to their colleagues and whose expertise should not be lost from the classroom.

Further, because headteachers are the linchpin of successful schools, we must pay attention to their selection and performance. The National Commission on Education found genuine problems with the current system:

selection processes that are arbitrary, selection panels that show signs of patronage, governor training that is poor. In the United States, potential heads must undergo sufficient training to prove their capacity to take on the responsibilities of leading a school. I think we should look at introducing such a system in the UK.

It is also extraordinary that there is no infrastructure of support for heads to enable them to address management issues with peers and colleagues and develop management capability. For example, heads need the chance to focus on schools in comparable circumstances but with better outcomes. That argues for a national network for school improvement.

I have said before that education will be the passion of my government. That means national leadership. But leadership should be the basis of partnership with all parts of the education system, not dictatorship over it.

It is absolutely vital that we get away from the culture of blame and short- termism. Government, teachers, parents and administrators are joint partners in the most important economic and social task facing this country, and it is time that we behaved like partners, with a joint mission to give our children the best start in life.

This article is adapted from a lecture being delivered today at the London University Institute of Education.

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