The reality behind the rhetoric

12th January 1996 at 00:00
The hype over Labour's "Excellence for everyone" policy document obscures the detail, says David Hart

Tony Blair and David Blunkett should have stuck to the script. Instead, they allowed the Labour party's spin doctors to put a negative gloss on the education debate .

It is one thing to try to outdo the Government by demonstrating greater toughness on standards. It is quite another to back this stance with false statistics ("30 per cent of schools are failing") and exaggerated comment about high standards only being available for the few.

Politicians create a yawning gap be-tween rhetoric and reality. So it is important to look at the reality of a document which is part of the manifesto of a party which may well form the next Government.

It contains a number of good policies:

* schools should set achievement targets. Better still if they are set in the context of a value-added approach to the measurement of success. Although crude league tables remain an obstacle Labour is ambivalent about their future;

* a new grade of expert teacher is well worth pursuing, provided its supporters accept that schools do need sensible management structures and understand that such a grade has performance-related pay implications;

* a new professional qualification for heads mirrors Government plans. I am not convinced that it should become a compulsory "certificate of air worthiness" but, if it is available to all who apply, and represents a comprehensive training and development package, it is bound to be a step in the right direction;

* baseline assessment for all five-year-olds has to be right, as long as we are talking about assessment and not testing as with key stage 1. There can be no value- added approach at this stage without a decent assessment process;

* appropriate homework minima are valuable on the assumption that Labour realises that they are unenforceable. They should form part of the home-school contract of partnership which the document also supports. Such a contract is a means by which standards can be raised. The problem is that Labour is not so strong on the subject of parental responsibilities when that partnership breaks down;

* the reduction of class sizes for key stage 1 pupils is more than welcome, but it will cost more than Labour thinks and cannot await the phasing out of the Assisted Places Scheme. There are real concerns about class sizes at key stages 2 and 3 which must not be forgotten either;

* a general teaching council could give the profession valuable control over standards, both of entry and conduct leading to expulsion. No one in their right mind has claimed the power for a general teaching council which successive Conservative governments have used as an excuse for inaction on this front;

* initial teacher education reforms, tied to an induction year, are absolutely vital if schools are to deliver the standards demanded by all political parties. Subject knowledge has to be strengthened and allied to a substantial practical element. Higher education institutions must ensure that the theories they teach are in tune with the requirements of today's schools.

There are, of course, reservations about some of Labour's proposals.

The closure and re-opening of struggling schools has not been thought through properly. The mechanism is tricky enough the timing even more problematic. How far should a school have deteriorated before it is closed? Hackney Downs is a classic example of one which was "past the point of no return" before an education association was sent in.

The suggestion that competency procedures can be shortened is delusory in most cases. Nobody wants to protect incompetence or poor performance. Such teachers have to be given training, support and advice alongside the operation of procedural stages which will stand up to scrutiny in an industrial tribunal. "Cheque-book severance payments" are not a noted feature of a state education system which is short of cash: nor will they necessarily pass muster with local authorities which foot the bill in delegated-budget schools.

I am intrigued to see Labour say that there should be an "easy and dignified route for heads into retirement". Does this mean that we can see the return to 10-year enhancement packages? If so, we may not have any heads left over the age of 50 within two years of Labour taking office.

Changes to the appraisal system are well overdue but the document will meet strong opposition if it seeks to tie a rigorous appraisal system to discretionary pay awards or to competency procedures, without thorough consultation.

Finally, the document outlines several ideas which must be the subject of further scrutiny. Languages in primary schools are a worthy aspiration but wholly unrealistic at present. The curriculum remains under intense pressure, despite the Dearing Review, and there is a relentless emphasis on the basics. Teachers would have to be recruited, and existing staff given in-service training, at considerable expense.

The proposal for a new national and local inspection regime is in grave danger of creating a dual bureaucracy for which schools will give no thanks. The Office for Standards in Education needs to be reformed, but the spectre of schools threatened with two types of inspection will be unwelcome. It will also be costly.

Worse still, Labour places too much faith in the ability of LEAs to raise standards. Under its proposed schools' structure, it is governors and heads who will, in reality, determine the speed at which standards are raised. LEAs can provide a valuable support service if they cover schools' needs at the right price. They cannot and must not, however, be seen as a substitute for the governance and management of schools.

Any document on standards is bound to contain omissions. It seems churlish to complain that such a comprehensive plan omits reference to a particularly key issue. But its failure to address teacher supply is glaring. Standards can only be raised if the profession contains good honours graduates at all stages of education.

Recent Teacher Training Agency forecasts show the extent of the looming recruitment crisis. Labour must have a strategy to cope with this or its policy document will be built on shifting sands.

New Labour promises much by way of a contract between schools, teachers, parents and Government, but it says little about the resources needed to deliver the goods sought by an aspiring Government.

The document applies too much pressure without enough support. That is why the emphasis on failure was greeted with some horror. Teachers' morale is not improved if schools are made scapegoats in the battle for the hearts and minds of the electorate.

Spin doctors may deceive the media from time to time, but they cannot fool a profession which wants a concord reflecting the respective obligations of national government and schools. Such a concord remains elusive, despite a document designed to capture the high ground of education politics.

David Hart is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers

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