I am the first serving PM to send his children to state schools

1st December 2006 at 00:00
Nine years on from his 'education, education, education' pledge, Tony Blair answers teachers' questions on his schools legacy

Q. Will you be pleased to be remembered as the Prime Minister who ended the comprehensive era?

A. What I will be pleased about is to have been Prime Minister in a decade when we have transformed the performance of our secondary schools, many of them proud to be comprehensives in their in-take of all-ability pupils, just different from traditional comprehensives in that they have strong external partners and greater independence.

We needed to move to a post-comprehensive era. We have done this, with the help of teachers, by doubling funding per pupil, an impressive rebuilding programme and driving up standards in reading, writing and maths.

It is the children in comprehensives who have gained most from this. But it is also about offering a range of schools with differing specialisms and strengths that meet the individual needs of pupils. So we have greatly expanded specialist schools and introduced trusts and academies that draw in sponsors from the community.

And it is working. Take Hackney Downs, a failing inner London school that had to be closed down. Now Mossbourne Academy on the same site, is called outstanding by Ofsted. It is over-subscribed. The children are thriving: the same group of children that were previously failed.

Like the majority of parents, I am less interested in what a school is called than ensuring the children get the best education and that families in poor areas get the same sort of choices that wealthier families take for granted. All this is being achieved without bringing back selection through ability.

Q. Teachers say that much of their new planning, preparation and assessment time is taken up by new initiatives and typing up lesson plans. Why are they still working an average 50 hours a week and spending their Sunday evenings doing school work?

A. Our workforce reforms are turning the tide on teacher workload and ensuring that teachers can focus on what they do best: teach.

We have tried to remove a whole range of administrative tasks from teachers, so they have 10 per cent of the timetable to plan, prepare and assess work outside of the classroom and limit the amount of time they can be asked to cover for absent colleagues. We have also doubled the number of support staff and increased the number of teachers by 36,000.

But I am sure there is more we can do. I know how dedicated teachers are.

The DfES works with a panel of heads trying to cut down the bureaucratic burden on schools and ensure that any policy changes consider the workload impact on teachers.

Q. British children are the most tested and examined in the world. Why do we need more testing than other countries?

A. I think regular pupil assessment has played a role in improving standards in our schools. It allows teachers to identify pupils that need extra support as well as those with talents that need to be stretched. In fact, children only sit three sets of national curriculum tests during 11 years at school.

But I take the point that we have to make sure that testing does not place too big a burden on pupils and schools. That's why the reforms we are making to secondary education will reduce the amount of coursework at GCSE and, where appropriate, A-levels will move from six assessment units to four.

Q. After 10 years of changes to English schooling, how happy will you now be to send your child to the local comprehensive, when last week's Ofsted report showed that more than half of schools are not providing a good standard of education?

A. As I suspect The TES knows, you can't really compare the latest Ofsted report with 10 years ago. This is because the regime has been toughened to take into account the significant improvement in the performance of schools over the last decade. It means schools that might have be judged in the past as good would only be judged as satisfactory now.

As Christine Gilbert said, the performance of schools, and the public's expectations of them, have both risen, and it is right that inspection should reflect that. If you take, for instance, the definition of special measures, the number of schools has fallen from over 500 in 1998 to around 200 in 2006. It is a mark of the progress made and the hard work of teachers and pupils that even with this tougher regime, the latest Ofsted report found almost 60 per cent of all schools have been judged outstanding or good and over 90 per cent are at least satisfactory.

An example of the improvements we have seen is that back in 1997, in only 83 comprehensives did 70 per cent of pupils gain five or more good GCSEs.

Today that number has grown to 580.

As to whether I would be happy to send my own children to a comprehensive school, I find the question a bit odd, given that all three of my children who have reached secondary school age went to a London state comprehensive, albeit one that is voluntary aided, having first attended a state primary in Islington. It's sometimes forgotten that I am the first serving Prime Minister to send his children to state schools. I don't expect praise for this but I do find some of the criticism a bit strange.

Q. You've outlined in your speech some of the reforms of which you are most proud. Which change to British schooling by your Government do you most regret?

A. It is the nature of Government - and, I suspect, teaching as well - that not everything goes exactly the way you hope. What's important is you learn and put it right. This is what we have done, for example, over giving targets to schools to reduce exclusions.

We were trying to balance two challenges: how to give a proper undisrupted education to the majority while ensuring troublesome kids didn't lose out on schooling. We have now focused more on providing heads with the tools, such as in-school units, to help them address low level disruption head on.

We have also improved and expanded pupil referral units. We have now done both of these things.

Q. How much power (such as hiring and firing teachers) and freedom (such as loosening the national curriculum) should be given to pupils in the bid to personalise learning?

A. Our best schools and good teachers have been personalising learning with great success for many years. They have also been involving pupils. School councils also play an increasingly valuable role, and Ofsted does talk to pupils when they inspect schools. Some schools involve pupils in their headteacher interviews and as school governors, but I think these sort of practices are best decided by schools themselves.

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