The Government's drive to raise standards in schools has an almost religious air. "I ask you to join with us in making the crusade for higher standards a reality in every classroom and every household in the country," says Education Secretary David Blunkett in his foreword to the White Paper Excellence in Schools.
With increasing force in recent years, headteachers and governors have been told that their job is to look continually at ways of improving the effectiveness of their schools as institutions of learning.
The White Paper puts the onus on heads and senior staff: "The vision for learning set out. . .will demand the highest qualities of leadership and management."
School performance tables are to be expanded to include value-added information show-ing pupils' progress. Schools will be required to set their own targets, and local education authorities will be given a much bigger role in encouraging the raising of standards in schools. The pressure on schools to perform will be relentless.
Most heads and teachers would say raising standards and improving their pupils' exam results has always been the priority. But since the Conservatives started pushing through their educational reform programme in the 1980s, the focus on the outcomes of education rather than education as a process has undoubtedly become clearer.
The cutting edge has come largely from the Office for Standards in Education. OFSTED will continue to inspect schools - and now local education authorities, to make sure they are carrying out their new responsibilities for driving up standards.
Mike Tomlinson, OFSTED's director of inspections, takes the continual push for higher standards as a given. "There isn't any school that doesn't want to see its pupils achieve to the highest levels of which they are capable," he says. "That's what schools exist for and what teachers do. It's at the heart of their job."
Schools nowadays know they will lose pupils - and therefore income - if they don't keep examining their performance and raising their standards. This needs to be the over-riding management objective, says Mr Tomlinson. "If a school is not setting this out as the key objective in its planning it either won't happen, or it will happen in a piecemeal fashion and the overall effect will be lost."
But the job of raising standards is hard to define because the objectives against which success can be measured are so complex.
A good education, says the White Paper, "provides access to this country's rich and diverse culture, to its history and to an understanding of its place in the world. It offers opportunities to gain insight into the best that has been thought and said and done."
The wider goals, it says, are that schools, with families, "have a responsibility to ensure that children and young people learn respect for others and for themselves.
"They need to appreciate and understand the moral code on which civilised society is based, and to appreciate the culture and background of others. They need to develop the strength of character and generosity which will enable them to become citizens of a successful democratic society."
This broad definition makes no specific mention of exam results, though the Labour government clearly has no intention of dispensing with the performance tables.
William Atkinson, head of Phoenix School in Hammersmith, west London, a former failing school now praised by inspectors, believes the Government's concentration on raising standards is absolutely right.
"Children up and down the country are not getting their full dues from the education system. Our job is to get them through exams so that they can go into gainful employment, and to equip them as citizens who can play a full role in society. The White Paper is saying that the head's job is to look at our institutions and make sure they are as effective as possible."
David Bell, chief education officer in Newcastle, believes the role of the head is changing - the White Paper heralds a shift away from business manager to educational leader of the school, responsible above all for improving standards.
"Since local management of schools came in there has been a lot of emphasis on the headteacher making sure budgets are balanced, personnel procedures are followed and so on. But the most important task for a head is educational leadership. That means improving educational achievement.
"Heads have the delegated authority to put resources against educational priorities, and that gives them the managerialfreedom to work on raising achievement. "
Key points from the White Paper
- Performance tables will change to show schools' rate of progress
- Every school will have its own targets, agreed with its local authority
- LEAs will adopt education development plans showing how standards in all schools can be raised
- Governors will have to inform LEAs of their choice of head
- LEAs will have a say if they think governors want to appoint the wrong head
- Governors will have more power to remove ineffective heads
- OFSTED will continue to inspect schools and will also inspect LEAs
- The standards and effectiveness unit will keep the DFEE in touch with schools
- The standards task force, with members from all parts of the education service, will advise the Government on its policies