How are we doing? Very well actually

28th November 2003 at 00:00
Successful education policies abound - so why doesn't the Government blow its own trumpet more? Conor Ryan uncovers some little-known facts

Here is an interesting fact. The gap in achievement between independent and state comprehensive schools has narrowed since Labour came to power - by seven percentage points.

Forty-two per cent of comprehensive pupils gained five GCSE A*-C grades in 1997, compared with 80 per cent of those in independent schools. This year, 50 per cent of comprehensive pupils did so and the proportion in independent schools was 82 per cent.

That means 46,843 more state-school pupils gain five good GCSEs every year than would have done so had achievement remained at 1997 levels, but only 755 extra pupils do so in independent schools.

This year, the proportion of good GCSEs in comprehensive schools improved by 1.3 points and fell by 0.4 points in independent schools, dragging the national improvement rate down. The independent sector is never slow to blow its own trumpet. Not so, on this issue, the Department for Education and Skills which buried these figures in the statistics section of its website.

The website does not even break down the figures to show the comparison between the percentage rate of increase. The fact that such data is neither calculated nor publicised suggests that far from exaggerating its achievements, the Government is underselling its successes.

Education Secretary Charles Clarke's party conference speech this year underlined the Government's failure to boast of its progress. Mr Clarke was forced to spend much of his speech, an otherwise good opportunity to highlight government achievements, arguing for change and defending university top-up fees.

There was a passing reference to nursery education and no mention of the building programme or the Government's success with failing schools. The casual viewer might reasonably conclude that after six years the Government had done very little.

Ministers' attitudes to failing schools provides a classic example of this neglect. When Labour was first elected, it insisted that schools in special measures should improve within two years or close. Few realise how successful this policy has proved.

More than 800 failing schools have been successfully turned around since (according to Ofsted reports) and the ratio of those improving to those closing has been around 8:1.

Despite a small increase in total numbers last year (and a possibility that the new inspection framework introduced this autumn may have led to a further rise), there were 46 per cent fewer failing schools in 2002-3 than in 1997-8. Yet Mr Clarke's comment in May at the launch of reforms to London secondaries was typical: "There are still far too many schools that are failing," he said.

Another target set in 2000 challenged schools with 15 per cent or fewer of their pupils gaining five good GCSE grades to improve within three years.

Of 127 schools challenged, just 12 remain below that performance standard, and they are improving.

A similar target that no school should have fewer than 25 per cent of its pupils gaining five good GCSEs has already helped reduce the total number of such schools from 436 to 253. But no minister is trumpeting these facts.

One reason for this is the Government's over-ambition. While the most clearly focused targets have helped to improve exam and test results, anything less than 100 per cent achievement spells failure in most newspaper headlines.

But ministers cannot just blame the media. They recently scrapped school achievement awards, which not only rewarded good and improving schools, but also attracted acres of local media coverage. And they do not communicate with voters enough - teachers may know why support staff are valuable, but there has been little effort to explain a series of policies to the wider public.

Not enough has been made of the fact that the employment of 80,000 extra teaching assistants and school secretaries since 1997 mean smaller teaching groups and better prepared lessons. Nor have ministers made much effort to explain how the taxpayers' billions have been spent.

Mr Clarke's conference speech failed to note how much more is being spent on buildings, teachers and computers than flagship reform programmes, which are less expensive than people assume.

Traditional Labour supporters might welcome the large amount which is being redistributed to help poorer families. Sure Start for deprived toddlers and their families will have a pound;1 billion budget next year and education maintenance allowances for poorer 16 to 19-year-olds a further pound;300 million. The case for this investment, which research suggests will reduce dependency and crime in later life, is powerful.

And there is surely wide appeal in the fact that 300,000 more three-year-olds have free part-time nursery education than in January 1997.

There is even a working public private partnership, with 290,000 places being delivered in private nurseries, voluntary playgroups or independent schools compared with 218,500 in state-maintained nursery classes or schools.

However, the biggest consumers of extra cash have been infrastructure and pay. True, it can be hard to sell school capital as a national news story.

And even when the Prime Minister recently opened the new pound;31m Business Academy in Bexley it looked like an expensive one-off rather than an example of the fact that there is more real-term investment in schools than at any time for at least 30 years.

But discounting the capital cost of converting grammars and secondary moderns to comprehensives in the early Seventies, one has to go back to the early Fifties to find a school-building programme of comparable ambition.

The Government might reap political dividends if it spelled out in detail how this money has been used in each locality, with figures on major projects and computer numbers in every school.

And direct staffing costs have used almost half of the extra pound;1,000 per pupil being spent in schools since 1997. Not only are there 25,000 more teachers and 80,000 more support staff (costing an extra pound;258 per pupil a year) than six years ago, but average teacher's pay rose from pound;23,197 in 1997 to pound;29,365 in April 2002, 13 per cent above inflation (or an additional pound;172 per pupil in real terms a year).

Ministers do not often shout about the pay rises because they fear that the wider public will resent them. The result is that many teachers discount them and the public believes their money disappeared into a "black hole" in this year's funding crisis. Far better to publish the figures as part of an open balance sheet in every community.

Of course the Government has had its failures: truancy rates have stubbornly failed to improve and the literacy and numeracy strategies clearly need more effort to meet the targets. But on most significant indicators, education is better than it was in 1997.

Yet only 29 per cent of voters believe schools have got better under Labour, while 50 per cent think they have got worse, according to an ICM poll for the News of the World in September.

And though a third of voters told Mori in a separate poll that they were optimistic enough to expect education to improve in the future under Labour, reflecting greater optimism than in 2002, how will they know when education improves if the Government sidelines its successes in favour of yet more change?

The Government's biggest problem is its penchant for permanent revolution.

Fear of being labelled complacent leads it to ever more radical answers which belittle its own earlier achievements. The opposition parties happily share this language of failure. And the public assumes its taxes have been wasted.

The latest change is the reform of higher education. The Government hardly helps its cause by making top-up fees its "defining education reform" this term. Higher tuition fees should fund university expansion, but voters must wonder where their taxes went.

At election time, Labour recognises that simple pledges to lower class sizes or increase teacher numbers have voter appeal. But the Government has failed to convince voters of its other achievements. Unless it does so more explicitly, the electorate will continue to fall for the seductive propaganda which insists their money was wasted by a government which failed in education.

Conor Ryan was special adviser to David Blunkett 1997-2001 How we lost our love of Labour, Platform 21

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