New Labour should win by playing game well

25th April 1997 at 01:00
If, a week from now, we wake up to a Labour government then it is of the greatest importance that its proposed education action zones are fully supported and made to work. There must be a shift from inspired rhetoric to well-informed strategies. Past mistakes must be avoided and the positive lessons of the past 18 years identified and acknowledged.

An example combining high level pre-election vision with policy strategies on the ground was Professor David Reynolds' article "Now we must tackle inequality not just assess it" (TES, March 21). His impassioned call for "the creation of a technology of educational policy and practice that is so strong, so relentless, and so powerful that it outweighs the effects of outside school influences" scores well for inspiration and political correctness but is potentially destructive if applied too literally.

The determination to extract every last ounce of improvement from schools is commendable, but not if a new government fails to tackle the root causes and symptoms of poverty. Multi-agency work is needed, bringing forward mutually complementary strategies in health, housing, employment and the benefits system if education, and schools, are to take on board Reynolds' challenges. I am reminded of Chairman Mao's dictum in China's Great Leap Forward that "revolutionary enthusiasm will overcome all obstacles". This led to a widespread cooking up of statistical returns, as state imposed targets could not be achieved.

David Reynolds rightly advocates allocating more money to socially disadvantaged students and schools. He refers to "interesting schemes in other countries like the Netherlands, where children from disadvantaged homes andor from ethnic minority backgrounds are weighted to increase school budgets".

Within our existing Standard Spending Assessment methodology, there is the additional education needs (AEN) component which has been adapted by the Netherlands and other countries. This includes a weighting based on the incidence of lone parent families, income support and heads of households, as well as pupils, from New Commonwealth and non-English speaking countries. This results in Tower Hamlets having the highest AEN multiplier or weighting of 2.80 last year and 2.85 this year. The lowest AEN weighting last year was 0. 62 for the new unitary authority of East Riding and this year, Rutland with 0. 45. It is a sophisticated and sensitive mechanism and can be developed further.

It isn't clear that we need to import such a system from elsewhere. Rather, the budget almost certainly needs to be increased and lessons learnt from statements of special educational needs and Home Office Section 11 grants, which apply mainly to children with English as a second language. The advances represented by these include a means of targeting individual children and specifying a range of desirable and achievable educational outcomes.

Such an approach is infinitely preferable to the social priority area (SPA) system of the 1970s, which missed the intended target of socially disadvantaged children. As a head of an SPA school, I was never required to specify how the additional resources were being spent, or whether educational gains were being achieved for the most disadvantaged. A Labour government must distinguish between such well-intentioned, but faulty, budgetary allocations to whole areas or schools where disadvantage exists, as opposed to more accountable methods.

Individual education vouchers to the socially disadvantaged might be a highly effective means of achieving what Reynolds and others advocate. Likewise, the National Commission on Education believed that one or two pilot schemes should be mounted with the local authority, in a purchaser or commissioner role, buying places in schools, public or independent, for children whose disadvantage would be best treated in such schools. This already happens in rarer special educational needs cases; a variation of the Assisted Places Scheme, but with a public body being the purchaser, rather than the individual parent.

Other measures which should be brought into an education action zone strategy are those which pay more attention to teachers as being other than crazed malcontents or self-regarding incompetents and which acknowledge that more research is needed. Sadly, each of these appears to be abhorrent to New Labour.

In those schools and colleges which serve markedly disadvantaged communities, there should be emphasis and structured research and development projects, especially those which open up multiple pathways for 14 to 19-year-olds and family programmes centred on early years children's needs. The absolutism of those who appear to believe that all the answers to poor literacy standards are known should be resisted. Lewisham's Literacy 2000 action research showed, yet again, that such absolutism is false and that there are clear benefits to be had when teachers are asked to solve problems in diverse ways while establishing, unambiguously, the ends devoutly to be wished.

Sabbaticals and twinning arrangements which facilitate teachers and heads in least favoured areas having purposeful links with colleagues and schools in more favoured areas should be a clearly stated and early priority. We also need to know much more than we do about the organisational volatility, over time, of schools serving disadvantaged and other challenging communities. The apparent speed with which a successful inner-city school can decline (often with the change of headteacher) is little understood. The robustness and longevity of expectations and standards in schools and in their communities differ markedly in Southwark and South Gloucestershire. Why?

Linked to this, and with apologies to my predecessor at Keele, Michael Barber (who has cornered the market in football analogies), I suggest that just as Bill Shankly was a brilliant manager of Liverpool FC, so it may be that particular kinds of characters and personalities (with or without the National Professional Qualification for Headteachers) are suited to some schools and communities and would fail abysmally in others. Perhaps we should investigate.

I hope New Labour, if elected, will adopt Jock Stein's statement about Celtic FC's mortal combat with Inter Milan in 1967: "We don't just want to win this, we want to win it by playing good football."

Professor Margaret Maden is director of the Keele University Centre of Successful Schools

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