New Labour, new deal
Labour Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett has taken the initiative to regain the confidence of schools by sending an unprecedented letter to headteachers and governing bodies promising a new open door policy.
He urges them to set aside scepticism, stressing that partnership is essential if schools are to succeed. "We are not interested in dogma," he says in the letter. "Instead we are committed to what works. We are interested in standards not structures."
The appointment of Michael Barber as head of the new standards and effectiveness unit within the Department of Education and Employment also sends out a clear message about the way Mr Blunkett's "enabling department" is going to operate, with a working educational professional, rather than a civil servant, at its heart.
Professor Barber, the dean of new initiatives at London University's Institute of Education, has the personal backing of the Prime Minister and will have wide ranging powers to develop strategies for raising standards in schools.
Style as well as substance is likely to change. As a former education officer of the National Union of Teachers, Professor Barber is expected to have a less confrontational approach than Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools.
The teacher unions have said they expect fairness rather than favour, but have already been won over by Mr Blunkett's promise of a place at regular education summits to discuss policy. Local authorities are eager too, to join a new era of partnership.
Mr Blunkett believes Professor Barber will provide an "outward looking focus from within the department". He will be expected to bring together the warring quangos - the Office for Standards in Education, the Teacher Training Agency and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority - in the drive to raise standards, bringing much of the impetus back within the DFEE. Significantly, in his inaugural speech at the Institute of Education, Professor Barber warned last year that an incoming Government would have to tame the internecine struggles between quango heads. The task is now his.
Mr Blunkett has a set of targets which all the quangos will be expected to achieve. For example all children, apart from those with special needs, will be expected at the age of 11 to be able to read at the appropriate level by the end of a second Labour term in office.
The Government showed its determination to act swiftly on standards, with the priority the 281 schools identified by OFSTED as failing. Stephen Byers, standards minister, is this weekend studying a report on failing schools. He said: "For those schools which are unable to improve, we will close them and order a fresh start. Good schools which co-exist with the bad will be brought in to support them and set the underperfoming school on a new path. We will not shrink back from tough decisions."
As part of the new deal, a Labour Government has pledged to cut class sizes to 30 or under for every five, six and seven-year-old within its first term of office.
Civil servants are struggling to turn the promise into reality amid fears about how it will be funded and implemented. They believe the pledge can only be met through paying a specific grant to local authorities and are worried that money given to schools to cut class sizes could be spent elsewhere.
Sources close to Mr Blunkett insist that no money other than that saved from the abolition of the assisted places scheme will be used to cut class size. This is expected to accrue at the rate of o30 million a year and will be targeted at areas that need it in order to meet the pledge which formed a centrepiece of Labour's manifesto.
But with official figures showing just 13 English LEAs now have less than 10 per cent of their primary pupils in classes of 30 or fewer that money will be spread thinly. There are already more than 1.1 million children in classes of 31 to 35, a further 120,354 are in classes of 36 to 40 and almost 9,500 are in classes of 41 or more.
FE Funding Revolution, page21