Far more carrot than stick

19th January 1996 at 00:00
Labour leader Tony Blair says that the power of his party's policy lies in the fact that its key ideas come from below. The past 12 months have seen an enormous change in the educational debate in Britain. We have moved the discussion on from the governing structure of 1,000 grant-maintained schools to where it should be - on performance and achievement in 25,000 state schools responsible for educating 7 million children.

To widespread dismay, the Government remains obsessed with structures not standards. But on the Labour side, there is agreement that raising standards is now the central challenge facing politicians, educators, parents and children. I believe that our policy paper, Excellence for Everyone, published last month, will come to be seen as the first official recognition that the idea of "school improvement", launched 20 years ago, has come of age. It has even shamed the Government into adopting some of our ideas - last week it took up homeschool contracts.

The power of Labour's document lies in the fact that the pressure for it and the constructive engagement with its key ideas come from below. Go into most schools or colleges in the country and you will see some of the characteristics that make up a flourishing and successful school. Look at a growing number of local education authorities and you will see a model of support, innovation and educational improvement that is the basis for national action.

There is much that is good in our system. But unfortunately it has too often been restricted to an elite few. A return to a system dominated by selection at 11 would make matters worse. We need reform that looks forward rather than back.

The moral imperative is to make the privileges of the few the assumption of the many. It is now an economic imperative too. I have just returned from Japan and Singapore. There, excellence for all is the abiding theme of educational policy. Eighty per cent of Koreans now reach university entrance standard, yet 25 years ago they had a lower literacy level than we did. It is simply not true that "more means worse".

At the heart of Labour's educational agenda are core themes of professional partnership, high expectations and rising standards.

First, partnership. Excellence for Everyone offers a new deal to the teaching profession, promoting an ethos of renewed professionalism for the new century. Take four of what I believe to be its most exciting ideas.

* We are determined to end the absurd situation where the best teachers have to leave the classroom to get promoted. So we will create a new grade - the Advanced Skills teacher - for those who excel.

* We believe that professional teachers should be freed from the routine bureaucracy and chores that take them away from teaching. They should also be properly supported in the classroom. So we propose more classroom support - including Associate Teachers drawn from business, ethnic minority communities and the arts, working on a structured basis under the direction of teachers.

* We believe too that the teaching profession - its status, respect and standing - would be better served with a single representative body. So we will create a General Teaching Council to raise standards.

* We support a coherent approach to professional development. Our proposed new National Teacher's Centre - a satellite university for teachers - will enable teachers to enhance their qualifications and will allow professional development, through in-service training, to be properly fostered and accredited.

Second, high expectations must drive the system. They should apply to all the partners in the educational process. The role of central government is to provide the leadership, strategy and resources that education needs. LEAs should support schools in setting targets for improvement, be evaluated for that task, and if they are not performing well, then action should be taken.

Schools and teachers have challenging tasks, but high expectations are appropriate for them too. Where they are not fulfilled, prompt action is essential. Heads and governors have a responsibility to ensure that every teacher in a school is able to perform to satisfactory standards. In the small number of cases where schools prove unable to provide minimum education standards for the children in their care, a new school could be opened on the same site providing better opportunities for the children.

The responsibilities of pupils and parents are vital too. Good schoolwork depends on good homework. A parent is, after all, a child's first teacher. That is why we first initiated the idea of national homework guidelines as part of homeschool contracts detailing rights and responsibilities of both sides of the education partnership.

Third, rising standards are the goal - for the many and not just the few. Even in opposition we are making a clear start. All the research shows nursery education makes a positive and significant contribution to educational achievement. Labour is committed to setting targets to enable every three and four year old, whose parents want it, to have access to a nursery place. And we intend to develop quality childcare options to meet the demands of parents in the modern labour market.

The research shows also that smaller classes benefit children. So we will redirect money which currently supports a relatively small number of pupils in the private sector, to phasing out the Assisted Places Scheme to ensure no infant class in the state sector has more than 30 children.

Research also shows that good headteachers are essential to effective school performance. So we will set up a new national register of people competent to be heads, to improve quality control in headteacher appointments.

Finally, new technology has exciting potential. Properly used by trained teachers, it has the capacity to promote great advances in educational performance and thinking. It has a central role to play in creating a more personalised and flexible education system for the 21st century.

Children can now learn about American rock formation by visiting the Grand Canyon on the information superhighway. They can have their maths work marked as they do it by computers that help identify their strengths and weaknesses. And they can collaborate with students on the other side of the globe through the Internet. Labour's approach to the information superhighway - combining free and fair competition with the public interest - will ensure every school and college is cabled up.

A confident country can only be built if everyone is part of it. That is why I want a Stakeholder Economy in Britain - to create a country in which opportunity is available to all, advancement is through merit and from which no group or class is excluded. That requires an education system that brings out the best in us all. It must prepare pupils for a world radically different from that inhabited by their parents, and offer mobility and security in a world of change.

Six months ago, in The TES and in a lecture at the Institute of Education, I said we needed to combine support and pressure to drive up standards. That requires hard choices and sometimes difficult decisions. But the goal should be clear: a renewed and revitalised schooling system dedicated to the needs of all children.

Over the past 12 months, Shadow Education Secretary, David Blunkett, and his team have made a quantum leap, developing an educational policy that holds out the hope of improvement for every school in the country. Nothing could be more important for Britain's future success.

focus on professional development, schools management update, pages 3-9

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