So long and thanks for everything

29th June 2007 at 01:00
William Stewart assesses Tony Blair's record on education in England

FOR A Prime Minister who famously announced that his priority would be "education, education, education", Tony Blair is able to reel off an impressive list of statistics. Whether they will add up to lasting improvements is less clear.

There have been obvious benefits for teachers in England and Wales. Their average pay has risen by about 45 per cent over the past 10 years, although the performance pay system means they often have to jump through hoops to get it. They also have more help now, with an extra 154,000 support staff in schools since 1997.

But, at the same time, there has been an increasing demand for ever-improving test results, prompting fears that dull teaching to the test is creating bored, disaffected pupils. Concerns about the flip side to the focus on driving up standards are growing.

Professor Alan Smithers, the director of the centre for education and employment research at Buckingham University, said: "Schools have been reduced to factories for producing test and exam scores."

Christine Gilbert, chief schools inspector in England, has recommended an investigation into the effects of the regime. And the National Association of Head Teachers has passed a motion of no confidence in the Government's education policies.

This is all a far cry from those heady days in 1997, when ministers hit the ground running with an assault on low primary school standards through the numeracy and literacy strategies.

In policy terms, however, there has been no Blairite revolution, more an evolution and rebranding of an existing Tory agenda, with a generous dose of extra cash. The academies Mr Blair believed would transform inner-city education are essentially beefed-up versions of the city technology colleges first introduced under Margaret Thatcher. For foundation schools, read the Conservatives' grant-maintained schools, with the sharp edges taken off. Trust schools are no more than foundation schools linked to external organisations.

The specialist schools movement has expanded exponentially under Mr Blair and been opened up to all secondaries, but it is yet another scheme with Conservative roots.

New Labour has given these ideas a softer focus, with more equitable funding and, latterly, the promotion of collaboration between schools. But the drive for greater accountability and pressure on "failing" schools, through the Ofsted testing, targets and tables approach pioneered by the Tories, has intensified.

Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, played a major role in education during both administrations. He believes the key difference under Labour has been sustained funding.

"When I first set up the city technology colleges in 1987, we had to stop in 1990 because of the crisis in the exchange rate," he said. "But since 1997, funds have always been there to support the policy."

No 10 Downing Street, with its in-house education advisers (notably Andrew, now Lord, Adonis), has always been keen to push against "the forces of conservatism." Five education secretaries have been left to smooth relations with the teaching profession, with varying degrees of success.

The Blair government was never afraid to upset the teachers' unions, introducing the General Teaching Council, a potential competitor, during its first term. Like Mr Blair's other education quangos, the National College for School Leadership and the Learning and Skills Council, it has not been a roaring success.

But the handling of potential union opposition was. The deal hatched in 2002 to tackle teacher workload, in return for allowing support staff a bigger role in the classroom, was a masterstroke. While the National Union of Teachers has been left struggling to make its voice heard, the government's partnership with other unions has allowed potentially damaging differences to be resolved.

Support staff numbers have increased dramatically, but so have teachers, and Downing Street believes one of the biggest successes has been in their training. In 1997, only a few hundred received initial training in schools.

Today, with the advent of the graduate teacher programme, one in six do.

Mr Blair's advisers argue that this helps to provide a profession rooted more in practice than theory, better able to deal with issues such as discipline. They dismiss claims that professional judgment is being undermined by the national curriculum and pressure to teach to the test.

In time, Mr Blair could find that the hand of history has dulled much of the lustre on his education record. And improvements in GCSE results may not look as good when schools' use of vocational exams to push them up the league tables are taken into account. Some academies are showing encouraging signs, but it is too early to judge their success.

By allowing support staff to take classes and teach children, could the Blair years end up being seen as the beginning of the end for teacher professionalism?

John Dunford, the Association of School and College Leaders' general secretary, prefers to be cautious. He said: "When we complain about testing and overload, it is really important not to forget just how depressing it was teaching in the 1980s and up to 1997, working in schools for a government that did not seem to believe in state education."

That is one thing that Mr Blair, the first serving Prime Minister to send his children to state schools, could never be accused of.

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