Fast, furious and fuelling fears

8th August 1997 at 01:00
Frances Rafferty reviews the first 100 days of the Labour government and its implications for education.

Just hours after Tony Blair left Buckingham Palace as Prime Minister, journalists were summoned to the Department for Education and Employment to meet the new Secretary of State and his team.

Looking remarkably fresh following the long election campaign and a few hours' snatched sleep, David Blunkett strode in. One hundred days later the adrenalin of victory is still flowing.

A forest has been felled to feed the DFFE fax machines. Each day announcements of new task forces, new consultation groups, new appointments, new guidelines, new summits, new deals, and good intentions have issued forth.

In the first week, Professor Michael Barber moved from London University's Institute of Education right into the heart of the DFEE, as head of its Standards and Effectiveness Unit. A month later, a National Schools Standards Task Force was announced with David Blunkett in the chair, and the unlikely combination of Chris Woodhead, chief inspector, and his arch-critic, Tim Brighouse, chief education officer of Birmingham, as vice-chairs.

On May 13, the Government made live-or-die targets for literacy and numeracy (by 2002, 80 per cent of 11-year-olds will reach the appropriate reading standard and 75 per cent of 11-year-olds the standard for maths).

Two-and-a-half weeks into office, Stephen Byers, minister for school standards, came out with all guns blazing, with a list of 18 schools deemed not have to made sufficient progress since failing their inspections.

Two days later, the end of nursery vouchers and the setting up of early-years forums was announced, as was the introduction of the Education Bill to abolish the Assisted Places Scheme and use the money to cut class sizes. This has become the Government's first piece of legislation on the statute book.

Estelle Morris, education junior minister, has opened new specialist schools, announced education action zones, given details of new indicators for league tables, asked the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority for its interim report on the national curriculum and called for a sharper focus on numeracy and literacy. She, with Mr Byers, has met representatives from all the schools "named and shamed" on Mr Byers's list.

In mid-June, Hackney was fingered for "voluntary" review by the Office for Standards in Education. About the same time minimum nutritional standards for school meals were announced: "The standards will result in healthier food - reducing fat and sugar, increasing vitamin B and mineral intake - which children enjoy eating."

If Margaret Thatcher earned opprobrium as the milk-snatcher, David Blunkett is just as popular as the chip-nicker. Even he acknowledged his salad lunch and extra homework regime was not making him the nation's favourite among the young.

A glittering array of new Labour stars have been drafted in as advisers. The new peers, David Puttnam the film maker and the fashionable Helena Kennedy QC, along with the bad boy of pop, Noel Gallagher, seem set to eclipse the likes of the historian Lord Skidelsky, the controversial Sheila Lawlor and curriculum traditionalist John Marks.

The Chancellor's Budget was good news for the department, with an extra Pounds 2.3 billion won from the Treasury coffers for schools and Pounds 2.5bn from windfall taxes for Welfare to Work.

On the employment front, a New Deal Task Force, managing to combine all the department's buzz words, chaired by Peter Davis was set up in early June to oversee the Welfare to Work plans. An advisory group on Adult Education and Lifelong Learning had its first meeting in early July.

On June 16, Baroness Blackstone, education minister in the House of Lords announced the rationalisation of examination boards. The long-awaited Dearing review of higher education was published and the Government announced the end of free university places.

Tony Blair said education would be at the heart of his government and the torrent of activity by his education ministers is following that through. However, senior civil servants are concerned the pace may be too fast and ministers too impatient - and not just because the annual cricket match against the Secondary Heads Association had to be cancelled because they were too busy.

A Government which produces a White Paper in haste (on day 67), may repent at leisure, they warn. The technical paper accompanying it is already throwing up devils in the details. The lofty rhetoric of standards, not structures, begins to become less tenable.

As the department's officials head for the sun, bags packed with Ken Follett novels, they will hope to recharge their batteries. The 100 days following their return are unlikely to be any slower, however.

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