No shame in setting high targets;Opinion

26th June 1998 at 01:00
EQUAL opportunities has rightly been a major concern of educators and education policy for the past 15 to 20 years. Some of the great unsung successes of the education service, such as the transformation of opportunities for girls since the mid-1980s, have occurred in this field.

The present Government's goal - the creation of a world-class education service - raises the stakes and gives equal opportunities greater priority than ever, for being world class surely means achieving success for everyone. It is about enabling the many to achieve standards that, until recently, we only provided for the few.

It is not consistent with a world-class service that there is so much variation in the performance of schools or that more than 50,000 pupils leave school every year with no qualifications. Nor is it acceptable that differential performance is already established by age seven.

The Government's approach to equal opportunities is designed to tackle these deep-seated problems. The foundation of any systematic approach to equal opportunities is good data. Unless the performance of the system can be monitored its impact on different groups cannot be explored. There is no education system in the world as rich in data as this one. National assessment at the end of each key stage and the analysis by the Department for Education and Employment and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority provides unrivalled insight into the performance of the system. Our researchers lead the world in data analysis.

Performance information, however, is only the beginning. It does not tell us what to do about problems it reveals. The Government's approach to tackling the evident problems has been vigorous. It has insisted that there should be high expectations of everyone, regardless of background. As Stephen Byers, the schools standards minister, put it: "Poverty is no excuse". The fact that someone has been brought up in disadvantaged circumstances does not and should not justify lower expectations.

What is forgotten is that there was a second important clause in Stephen Byers's famous sentence. "Poverty is no excuseIbut it is a justification for targeted support." That is why the literacy target we have set is a level 4 target. It is unashamedly high. We want every child to make progress. Children who achieve level 3 can read. But level 4 is the level necessary to succeed at secondary level. That is why we should do everything we can to enable as many pupils as possible to achieve it.

The funding for the Literacy Strategy is allocated according to need. The schools with the biggest challenges will get the most support. Pupils who fall behind will get extra targeted support to enable them to catch up, pupils with special needs will get the extra support they deserve too.

This focus on levelling up is not the sole radical element of the Government's approach to equal opportunities. It is also avoiding the flaw of much old-fashioned thinking on the theme which led people mistakenly to equate equity with uniformity. This Government will certainly demand high standards for and from everyone but, far from imposing uniformity, it is explicitly going much further than any previous government in encouraging diversity, Last week Estelle Morris, the schools minister, announced that the total number of specialist secondary schools would, from September, be 330. By the end of the Parliament there will be 450. The first Muslim voluntary-aided schools have been established. Initiatives such as these demonstrate the Government's determination to provide a wide range of opportunities to meet the diverse aspirations of individuals and communities.

This combination of good data, high expectations, extensive diversity and targeted support represents a redefinition of equal opportunities. It can make success for everyone our achievable goal. A phrase that has been part of the rhetoric for decades can become a reality.

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