Labour's policies are not mythical

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Since the Greeks debated new approaches to teaching Homer, education has attracted vigorous debate. But the debate about Labour's education policies risks becoming sidetracked from the main issue - Labour's determination to ensure that every school is an improving school, every child an achieving child (TES, February 23 "Labour develops nervous politics", "Crusaders can't march on empty slogans").

That isn't a slogan - it's the core of our policy. This country has never given equality of opportunity to all children. Historically, only the wealthy and boys were educated; more recently selection and unfair funding have driven an educational divide through the country.

Mythology was also big with the Greeks. But that which has arisen around Labour's document Excellence for Everyone is extraordinary.

First, there's the teacher-bashing myth. The Labour team is strong on teaching experience. As a teacher of 18 years' experience, I'm only too well aware what the recent years of turmoil have meant. Far from teacher-bashing, we're anxious to remedy low morale in a profession which has struggled through 17 years in which the Government altered the curriculum, failed to resource equipment, and voted for pay rises it then refused to fund.

But we don't pretend that soothing words will make everything all right. The challenge is bigger than that. The nature of teaching and learning is changing, and so are the demands of society and the expectations of young people. Labour's document offers partnership between all parties - government, local authorities, schools, teachers and parents, to face the common agenda of raising standards.

Then there's the myth that we intend to impose greater local education authority control. LEA control is a thing of the past, but schools don't exist in isolation. They need support. Labour local authorities like Birmingham, Newcastle and Lewisham are showing what can be done. And 26 education authorities are implementing pilot schemes for parts of Labour's programme.

The myth that our policies are uninformed and unresearched is preposterous. Many schools have got it right already - the challenge rests in helping those who haven't, and the way to improve teaching and learning is to draw on the best practice of good schools. Many of Labour's policies are based on existing good practice.

And what about the myth that Excellence for Everyone doesn't offer anything new? What about the General Teaching Council, and the Teachers' Centre, which will use the Internet and broadcasting to improve teacher skills? What about proper professional development opportunities through headteachers' qualifications? What about homework clubs, teachers' assistants and teaching associates? What about five, six and seven-year-olds being taught in classes of no more than 30; giving all primary pupils access to lap-top computers; introducing baseline assessment and targets?

Research shows that homework raises standards. Despite this, nearly half of our primary school children do not receive 30 minutes of homework a day. Many of those who do, don't have the peace or the space in which to work. Hence Labour's commitment to home-school contracts so that parents know what they can do to support their child. That's why we are negotiating a network of homework clubs throughout the country.

Our policies are about investing in the future of all our children - not entrusting the future of this nation to the few. Every child has a right to fulfil their potential. That's not only crucial for the child, but vital to the social cohesion of communities and our economic success.

Our agenda is one of steady and perceptible improvement which will ensure that every school is an improving school, every child an achieving child. While many children do exceptionally well, too many underachieve. Labour's education policies are not about apportioning blame, they're about addressing difficult issues. The argument is about how to achieve effective comprehensive education that provides high standards of education for every child, everywhere.

Those who persist in chanting the mantra "there are no spending commitments" demonstrate a political naivety that almost beggars belief. Education is at the top of Labour' s agenda now, it will still be top during the election campaign, and it will remain there in government.

Estelle Morris is a junior Labour spokesman on education

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