Labour must learn to let go

13th April 2001 at 01:00
It's a shame Labour has blotted its excellent education copybook with over-prescription, writes Chris Husbands

The Government's record is impressive. In primary schools, pedagogy and attainment have been transformed by the literacy and numeracy strategies. In secondaries, statutory target-setting has produced not only continuing improvement in GCSE attainment but, in many schools, has led to renewed attempts to bridge the pastoral and academic divide. In teacher education, national curricula and defined standards have produced improvement in the quality of new teachers' classroom performance. For the first time in a generation, systematic professional development has been planned in the light of emerging policy priorities.

Initiatives already in place will carry the momentum of change beyond the election. The National College for School Leadership will provide a forum for wide-ranging debate on school leadership. Recruitment remains difficult, but the foundations have been laid for a long-term transformation: training salaries, improved career development, better school buildings. The extension of the national literacy and numeracy strategies into key stage 3 will create opportunities in the phase which has been most resistant to change. Extensive investment in computer training is just beginning to bring about a sea change in attitudes. The list could go on.

The initiatives are extensive and some might begin to make in-roads into stubborn problems: the long tail of underachievement, the absence of effective and managed career structures for teachers, the historically low expectations of the educational performance of the underprivileged. But there are issues which the agenda of the past four years hasn't addressed, and may have worsened.

Standards of achievement have certainly risen for average and above-average learners. Perhaps the best thing to be in English schools over the past three years has been to be a Year 10 boy predicted to get a grade D, or a Year 6 boy predicted to get a level 3 - vast sums have been poured into turning the D into a C and the 3 into a 4. Accountability has worked much less effectively for lower-attaining pupils wildly adrift from national benchmarks. The conversion of general national vocational qualifications into "vocational GCSEs" may make things more difficult by insisting on comparability with academic courses. Any further downgrading of practical and technical subjects will increase disaffection and low morale. A framework is needed which recognises the challengs which the disaffected pose for schools and generates the energy, resources and commitment to address their needs.

Successful, often specialist schools, have proved enormously successful for those who teach and learn in them. They have often established national and international links which have stimulated exciting curriculum and professional development. But they have sucked pupils, staff and innovatory energy from schools nearby. One study suggests that house prices around successful schools are up to pound;20,000 higher than around others. Evidence mounts of staff taking salary and status cuts to work in successful schools.This dismantling of a comprehensive system of state education, which will be accelerated by many of the proposals in the Green Paper on schools, will be socially and educationally disastrous. It is difficult to see how what Birmingham chief education officer Tim Brighouse calls an "interdependent" school system can really be built against a background of differences in status and opportunities between schools. If the next government does not row back from the promotion of individual school identity and independence, it will compound, not solve, problems of exclusion.

Target-setting has sharpened teachers' focus on pupil outcomes. It has also thrown light on the limits of educational action emphasising those things outside school which conspire to prevent children from achieving their potential. The next government will need to learn the lessons emerging from "joined-up" local activity to structural projects which require teachers, social workers, health professionals and community workers to collaborate with families in making decisions for individual children.

Two themes underlie these policy areas: one is an increasing concern with directing energy and resources to the level of the individual pupil who needs support. The second is a recognition that local, collaborative solutions based on networked organisations are more likely to deliver than either open competition or central control. In its drive to raise standards, the Labour government has, far more than any predecessor, centralised control of curriculum, training, pedagogy and resourcing. Local innovation exists in a bidding culture which rewards the already successful. To address the underlying issues, the Government needs to think hard about how to let go, how to reach a new accommodation between central bureaucracy and local collaboration.

Chris Husbands is professor of education at the University of Warwick.

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