If it works for Blunkett, why not here?

16th February 2001 at 00:00
General election fever is already evident. Note that since the last one Scotland has experienced a veritable revolving door's worth of Labour education ministers. No fewer than four have fleetingly taken the stage, arriving in a flurry of promises and moving on often untimeously and in perhaps regretted circumstances. Contrast that with the profile of their solid English counterpart, David Blunkett, tipped to take over from Jack Straw as Home Secretary should the Government go to the polls this spring and win a second term.

History will surely pronounce Mr Blunkett to have been a strong and effective Secretary of State for Education and Employment. He has shown determination, energy and admirable singlemindedness in pursuit of excellence for the least privileged. Remember how he put his job on the line at the start by promising to resign should ambitious targets for 11-year-olds not be met by 2002.

Perhaps the man is outstanding for an ability he shares with Chancellor Gordon Brown. He speaks for old Labour values while challenging outworn party mindsets. Thus in 1996 while still in opposition he delivered a damning critique of comprehensives as having failed generations of children by perpetuating the worst features of secondary moderns.

The 1997 Labour recipe for improving English education included the introduction of diversity of provision, school specialisms, setting by ability. Since then there have been further expressions of policy intent coming straight from the Son-of-Thatcher handbook. Increased spending on secondaries will be tied to the achievement of tough new targets for 14-year-olds. Mr Blunkett's typical carrot and stick pproach figures also in proposed expanded adult literacy classes - with Downing Street currently considering cuts in the state benefits of thousands unless they attend classes to improve basic skills.

A raft of imaginative approaches includes emergency measures to tackle the "lost year" at the beginning of secondary; free American-style summer camps to provide leadership training for 16-year-old leavers; a literacy hour in secondaries; optional tests for children aged 12 and 13; extended learning opportunities to the age of 19 as the norm for all.

Mr Blunkett now proposes that from next year bored 14-year-olds should be allowed to study a trade (plumbing, gasfitting, construction, engineering), leading if successful to an apprenticeship. The Scottish task force must look at this seriously - no stone should be left unturned.

We live in days when many folk are at their wits' end on the problems posed by inclusion and ill-discipline in schools. Marj Adams, a fellow contributor to these columns, has summed up the exasperation of many when she says that schools are simply containing some youngsters at the expense of others. Bullying, truancy and lack of motivation are the spectres at the educational feast.

Any number of keynote speeches about the necessity of teenagers setting their own targets fails to address the fact that the majority of the disaffected are S3-S4 boys for whom the academic path is a blind alley.

Currently the legions of the lost are force-fed an unappetising (to them) diet of Standard grades. Let's offer them a trade and skills they can be proud of. There's nothing to lose and they might even enjoy it.

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