So far, so good

8th August 1997 at 01:00
In its election manifesto, Labour made much of its promise to rebuild trust in the political process. Its programme, it said, "was not the politics of 100 days that dazzles for a time, then fizzles out. It is not the politics of a revolution but of a fresh start, the patient rebuilding and renewing of this country - renewal that can take root and build over time."

All the same, 100 days on, the Government has set about delivering its promises with a purpose, and indeed fervour, that is quite startling. Nowhere is this more true than in education, its stated number one priority. David Blunkett and his fresh-faced ministerial team have displayed the sort of energy and dedication that almost takes the breath away.

In just three short months, this team has set up a new standards and effectiveness unit dedicated to identifying what works best in improving school performance. It has set ambitious new targets to improve literacy and numeracy in primary schools and begun to establish a network of summer schools to help children who fall behind with their reading. It has scrapped the previous administration's ill-conceived nursery voucher scheme and pushed through a "quickie" Bill to end the elitist Assisted Places Scheme. Work is now in hand to fulfil pledges to provide education for all four-year-olds and to cut class sizes in infants' schools to a maximum of 30.

Clearly, new Labour is on target to meet its own immediate commitments. But what of the medium and long term? What is new Labour for, and what does it hope to achieve? Impressive though its start has been, that's the easy part. Over the longer term, David Blunkett and Tony Blair will be judged on their promises to increase the proportion of national income spent on education, to tackle disadvantage and to raise achievement across the whole of the education system.

On the question of money, a welcome start has already been made with the Chancellor's surprise Budget announcement that an extra Pounds 2 billion is to be made available to re-equip and repair schools. This week, Mr Blunkett called on the School Teachers' Review Body to draw up a new pay framework, creating a new breed of advanced-skills teachers, to encourage talented professionals to stay in the classroom. That, so far as it goes, is also welcome.

But if ministers are serious about harnessing talent, and retaining it, more money needs to be found to raise general pay levels, particularly if graduates are to be required to pay for much of their own education and training in future. The Secretary of State has now explicitly recognised that the disparity of pay between the primary and secondary sectors needs to be addressed if government targets in reading, writing and maths are to be achieved. Primary staff (and particularly heads, whose leadership role is crucial), need and deserve better pay. But the picture is not a simple one; there are signs that the gathering crisis in teacher supply is often most acute in secondary schools. This issue, too, needs to be addressed if teachers with transferrable skills in maths, science and modern languages are not to vote with their feet.

The Government has also begun to set out its stall on tackling disadvantage, with plans to establish education and employment action zones in inner-city areas. This is part of a much wider strategy, taking in the Government's welfare-to-work programme, a new university for industry, and a training and learning package aimed at helping the large number of 16 to 19-year-olds with few academic qualifications.

But the biggest test will come in the autumn, with the publication of what promises to be a wide-ranging education Bill. Its central purpose will be to translate Labour's "standards not structures" rhetoric into a real programme for action for schools. The aspiration is clear enough.

But the consultation paper published this week, which sets out further details about the new framework for community, aided and foundation schools, doesn't look like a recipe for concentrating the debate on standards. On the contrary, there is a danger that schools will spend much of the next 18 months trying to calculate the benefits and pitfalls of the choices they will have to make (or have made for them). Despite the welcome ending of the unfair advantages on funding and selection procedures enjoyed in the past by the grant-maintained sector, there is justified suspicion that the new system will lead to a new pecking order, with community schools losing out to the more fashionable church and foundation schools.

There's another worry, too, and that is about Labour's news management style. Witness the way in which the Dearing report on the future of higher education was first leaked and then rubbished. In an effort to present a tough guy image and press ahead with its ambitious programme, it has also sometimes seemed arrogant and unwilling to listen to practical criticism. Ministers need constantly to remind themselves that the views of the stakeholders in education really do matter. If they really want to harness the idealism of teachers, as we believe they do, they should make sure that the partnership is real.

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