New PM to focus on closing performance gap

22nd June 2007 at 01:00
Gordon Brown will be anxious to raise standards for those at the bottom, write David Marley and Nick Hilborne.

Tony blair leaves Downing Street next Wednesday after ten years with education at the top of the domestic agenda. As Gordon Brown finally moves next door, what can teachers expect?

His forays into education policy as Chancellor, which concentrated on skills and provision for the under-fives, achieved mixed success. He appointed the first skills tsar and won plaudits for his role in launching Sure Start.

Other initiatives, such as individual learning accounts, which paid for adults to improve their basic skills, caused problems. The scheme was suspended in December 2001 amid allegations of fraud only two years after it was launched. Cases are still working their way through the courts.

Although a peripheral figure in education, where he has intervened has been in the context of tackling social exclusion and poverty. Mr Blair promoted structural reform of schools, introducing academies, specialist and trust schools, and celebrated the numbers of pupils getting five good GCSEs, Mr Brown has looked at the bottom end of performance.

It will be interesting to see if he retains the services of Lord Adonis, the schools minister who has driven the academies programme. Mr Brown has reportedly asked him to devise a programme for children with poor numeracy, which suggests the arch-Blairite may keep his post. The Chancellor has publicly backed academies, but insiders believe that he will change their financing.

Estelle Morris, a former education secretary, said: "He will bring a prime ministerial focus to 14 to 19 year olds and the skills agenda that was not there under Tony."

At the Treasury, Mr Brown instigated the Leitch review of the UK skills base, which recommended the raising of the school or training leaving age to 18.

Richard Brooks, of the Institute of Public Policy Research, one of Mr Blair's favourite think-tanks, said the new PM would want to go further.

"One in four 18-year-olds is not in education or training. With Gordon Brown's focus on social justice and what is needed for entry to the labour market, that is something he will want to address," he said.

He will also want to narrow the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and the better-off.

"There has been no overall progress since Labour came to power on this,"

said Mr Brooks. "For a number of years around 10 per cent of children do not get five A* to G grades at GCSE. Brown is much more worried about that end of the debate."

Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Fabian Society, agrees. He predicts new targets for schools to focus on the problem.

More on personalising learning is also expected to help keep pupils engaged in education as they move through primary and into secondary school.

On independent schools, Mr Katwala predicts Mr Brown will echo comments made by Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, about more partnerships between the state and private sectors. "He will want to create a cultural pressure to make sure they live up to their charitable claims," he said.

But he will not seek a real battle.

A YouGov poll this week found that Mr Brown is more trusted on education than David Cameron, the Conservative leader.

Who will advise Gordon?

Mr Brown will rely on a small number of special advisers to formulate his education policies.

Dan Corry and Gavin Kelly are members of his economics team who also served as special advisers to Ruth Kelly. Mr Corry, an expert on the devolution of power, will advise on all policy areas. Mr Kelly has worked on reducing the attainment gap for children from disadvantaged families.

Wilf Stevenson has been a friend of Mr Brown's since their student days at Edinburgh university and is the director of the Brownite think-tank the Smith Insititute.

Francis Beckett, a biographer of Mr Brown, said: "He will listen to Stevenson, particularly on higher education, but across the board."

David Bell, permanent secretary at the DfES, worked on raising standards at the bottom end of attainment when he was chief inspector at Ofsted. This will chime with Mr Brown's focus.

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