Enthusiastic advances all along the line

18th July 1997 at 01:00
In July 1943, while the Battle of Stalingrad raged and the outcome of the Second World War hung in the balance, the British government published an education White Paper entitled Educational Reconstruction.

It was an ambitious document in which R A Butler, the President of the Board of Education, set out plans for education after the war. For the first time, there was to be secondary education for all.

Educational Reconstruction was enthusiastically received by all political parties, the teacher organisations, the local authorities, the churches and even by the press. One newspaper described it as opening up a new era and - in a characteristically military wartime metaphor - "heralding advance all along the line". There was huge excitement that the end of the war would see a genuinely new era for British education.

No White Paper since then has managed to capture that same sense of ambition and broad national commitment to educational reformI until now perhaps.

Last week, 67 days after the election, the new Labour government published its education White Paper, Excellence in Schools. As the head of the Government's Standards and Effectiveness Unit, and having played a part in preparing the White Paper, I can personally vouch for the seriousness and scope of its ambition.

Excellence in Schools promises a national strategy to raise standards of literacy and numeracy involving universal nursery provision, baseline assessment, lower infant class sizes and investment in primary teachers' professional development.

It sets out a new quality-assurance framework emphasising target-setting and school self-evaluation as well as six-yearly inspections by the Office for Standards in Education and reformed performance tables.

It proposes the modernisation of comprehensive education, rejecting a return to academic selection but strongly encouraging the widespread use of IT, new approaches to pupil grouping such as fast-tracking, and welcoming technology or language schools as long as they put their specialist resources to benefit other local schools and communities as well.

It offers teachers a new deal: a general teaching council to enhance the profession's status, new opportunities to gain promotion without going into management and opportunities at all stages of teachers' careers to update skills.

Finally, it provides a range of ideas to encourage parents and business to support the education service in raising standards: home-school contracts, homework clubs and more school-business links. Teachers at last may find themselves swimming with, rather than against, the cultural tide.

If the sense of ambition behind the new White Paper is evident, so is the widespread welcome it has received. In the House of Commons on the day it was launched, it received a ringing endorsement from the Liberal Democrats as well as, of course, the massed ranks of Labour backbenchers.

The worst that Stephen Dorrell, the Conservative education spokesman, could throw at it was that it accepted a number of ideas from the previous administration.

Among teacher leaders the response was similarly enthusiastic, no doubt greatly aided by the previous week's Budget promise of an extra Pounds 2.3 billion for schools. The leader of the National Union of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, Nigel de Gruchy, renowned for blunt rebuffs rather than expansive compliments, called it the "most ambitious programme for education that I have witnessed in my lifetime".

The National Union of Teachers said it offered "a framework for improving achievement which teachers will welcome". David Hart, of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "It provides support, alongside the pressure of targets and league tables, which is urgently needed".

Even editorial writers - never the easiest group to please - were enthused. The Times: "A confident stride towards a welcome extension of opportunity"; The Guardian: "(Teachers) now have the detailed policies to back up the rhetoric"; The Daily Telegraph (grudgingly, perhaps): "David Blunkett deserves some credit for treading where the Tories would not"; and the Sun: "Tony Blair has declared his number one priority is education, education, education. Let's wish him success, success, success".

David Blunkett concludes his foreword to the White Paper by asking everyone "to join with us in making the crusade for higher standards a reality in every classroom and every household in the country".

Of course, I am completely biased but I strongly believe that Excellence in Schools provides the best opportunity since the war to unite the country behind a drive for higher standards for all.

You don't have to take my word for it, however. You can read the White Paper or the summary yourself. The full document has been sent to every school and is available on the web site http:www. open.gov.ukdfeedfeehome.htm. The summary is available in every branch of Tesco and Sainsbury's.

If you do read it and want to comment, you can simply telephone the dedicated hotline number (0645 123 001). In September, the roadshow will be coming to a regional conference near you.

White Papers on their own - even the best - change nothing. But if they change the climate and capture the spirit of the times, and if the proposals within them are sound and systematically implemented, then anything is possible. This White Paper sets out proposals which, taken together, could create the world-class education service Tony Blair called for on the steps of Downing Street on May 2. It may, like its great 1943 predecessor, lead to "advance all along the line".

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