Invest in children not spin

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
Epic speeches at the Labour conference ensured no barn was left unstormed in Bournemouth this week. But back in the classroom and at the school gate on Friday afternoon, what's changed? What does the future hold for schools and colleges in the run-up to the next election - a period which now begins the moment the last vote is counted in the previous one?

In its first term Labour's narrow focus on raising attainments in primary schools paid dividends. The ambitious 2002 key stage 2 targets were missed but the gain in children's learning - and Labour's credit rating with the electorate - was significant. But they could not maintain that consensus and clarity of purpose.

Labour always seems afraid of being accused of running out of ideas or of disappearing from the headlines for a day. And it quickly forgot its early promise always to match pressure on teachers with support. Targets multiplied along with a procession of spinnable but half-baked ideas and initiatives: fresh start, naming and shaming, individual learning accounts, action zones and school achievement awards are among those they would now rather forget. Excellence in Cities and Sure Start faired better but had little appeal to the floating and Tory voters New Labour aimed to woo. As a result they have been largely stealth policies: only the "gifted and talented" programme ever seemed to get promoted.

University places for most and Tony Blair's reference in his conference speech to "specialist schools and city academies" for every child are aimed at that same aspiring audience. Gone is the "standards not structures" slogan. Instead Number 10 has concocted a blend of John Major's "grammar school in every town" and Harold Wilson's "grammar schools for all" to offset the electoral disadvantages of a secondary system comprehensive in name only.

"Personalised learning" is the latest New Labour panacea. It got a mention in the Prime Minister's speech and was doing the conference rounds. For all their enthusiasm, no minister seems able to explain what it amounts to or how it fits with the emphasis of the literacy and numeracy strategies on the benefits to individuals of whole-class learning. Its potential appeal to parents who might otherwise hanker after more individual attention in private schools seems clearer. That alone is sure to guarantee it a place on the electronic tablets of stone that still come down from Mount Sanctuary Buildings with monotonous regularity.

What damaged Labour in the polls on education was its mismanagement of schools funding. There seems little prospect that Charles Clarke will have any extra cash to repair that. It may even get worse. The Education Secretary seemed to make it clear in a wheedling conference speech that his funding priority is for early years - though that might simply have been an attempt to justify the top-up fees he desperately needs his party to support.

Massive investment in the children's services Green Paper to offset the educational effects of child poverty, along with some bolder action to create more attractive vocational alternatives to higher education, could provide our next real leap forward in standards. But do they have enough appeal to new Labour's new constituency?

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