Spot the difference

24th September 2004 at 01:00
New Labour promised not to let ideology get in the way of children's education. Jon Slater assesses its record since 1997

Tony Blair came to power in 1997 promising to be different. Different from the Tories and their obsession with a "grammar school in every town" and their battle to persuade schools to opt out of council control. Different from old Labour, which he criticised for being in the teaching unions'

pockets, fighting for the rights of public-sector workers when they should be on the side of pupils and parents.

Both, he said, were guilty of letting ideology get in the way of children's education.

To emphasise his Government's break with the past, Mr Blair and David Blunkett, his first education secretary, set out three key principles for new Labour.

* Standards not structures: improvements in teaching and pupils' literacy and numeracy would be the new Labour goal. Rather than wage war on grammar schools, Labour devised a parental ballot system which all but guaranteed their survival.

* What works: hard evidence not ideology would be used to formulate policy.

Initiatives would be evaluated and changed as necessary in the light of rigorous evaluation.

* Support for the consumer over the producer: parents would be paramount.

One of the first acts of the new Labour government was to promise to "name and shame" failing schools.

But that was then. As Labour prepares for its conference seven years and three education secretaries later, one of Labour's golden rules has been quietly shelved, while the other two have been bent by events and political reality.

The mantra of "standards not structures" has fared the worst. For the most part, it accurately reflected attitudes during the party's first term.

Primary results were rising following the introduction of literacy and numeracy strategies that focused on improving teaching and ensuring pupils concentrated on the basics.

But, with the approach of the 2001 election, the focus shifted to secondary schools and structures were well and truly back on the agenda.

Inner-city standards would be tackled by new academies, state-run independent schools completely free of council control.

Encouraged by Downing Street, Mr Blunkett's replacement Estelle Morris proposed creating a "ladder" of secondaries with failing schools at the bottom and advanced specialists at the top.

Labour's new story was still about raising standards but the means was now structural change: the creation of a "post-comprehensive" secondary system.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "The Government has not been able to resist the temptation to fiddle with structures, which is easier policy-making than (raising) standards and makes for more immediate headlines."

The ladder has been ditched, but with the Government pressing ahead with school federations, an expansion of foundation schools and the promise of 200 academies by 2010, all that is left of ministers' earlier promise is that attacks on grammar schools remain strictly off-limits.

Mr Dunford is more complimentary about Labour's record on evidence-based policy-making, which he describes as "better than previous governments but still not good enough".

It is to ministers' credit that they did not flinch from abandoning the Fresh Start scheme, education action zones and the outright privatisation of council services after it became clear they had failed to live up to expectations.

But ministers were happy to give the impression that private involvement in education was some sort of panacea, despite the lack of evidence for their claims.

And heads complain that policy is still often rushed through to meet a political timetable and that initiatives are introduced in bunches, making it all but impossible to separate out the impact of each policy.

The latest example of rushed reform was revealed at a hearing of the education select committee two months ago when Charles Clarke, Education Secretary, confirmed to MPs the Government's commitment to evidence-based policy making. He then spent an uncomfortable few minutes trying to justify why, when by his own admission there was "very little evidence" that academies work, the Government had just announced a massive expansion of the programme.

His task was made harder by the fact that an official evaluation of the programme is expected before the end of the year.

But will a "warts and all" evaluation of the programme be published after the decision to go ahead has already been taken? Mr Clarke insists it will.

The Government is on firmer ground when its record of supporting consumer interests is placed under the spotlight.

Measures to close failing schools and sack inadequate teachers, combined with constant pressure on the profession to meet targets, were all intended to show parents that the Government is not a soft touch.

Again, however, the emphasis has shifted during the second term as ministers have acknowledged that teachers need, and will respond to, support as well as pressure. The deal to cut workload agreed with all the major teaching unions (except the National Union of Teachers) was a recognition that, if it wanted to raise standards in the long term, the Government needed teachers' co-operation.

The new relationship with schools promised in this summer's five-year strategy, takes the process of mending fences with the profession a step further.

But that was not what grabbed the headlines. Mr Blair's promise of greater parental choice, the creation of academies and more freedom for secondary schools were the measures that attracted most attention.

Indeed, if the plan sets out three principles for Labour's third term then they are choice (including personalised learning within schools), diversity and greater school autonomy. They show that Mr Blair retains his remarkable talent for neutralising opposition by appropriating ideas that right-wing opponents could use to attack the Government.

For Blairites, however, they represent more than a clever way to force the Tories away from the political centre. They see progress in turning these principles into reality as vital if the Government is to live up to its promise of radically reforming public services.

Philip Collins, director of the Social Market Foundation think-tank, said:

"They do not believe that left to their own devices teachers would make education as good as it should be."

Centralisation and targets have run their course and Blairites see the five-year plan as a way of keeping pressure on schools, he added.

"The real zealots on policy believe that this will empower parents."

Critics, including many Labour backbenchers, fear that this zeal for reform could sound the death knell for evidence-based policy-making.

Where, they ask, is the evidence that creating academies or giving secondary schools greater freedom to set their own admissions policies raises standards?

Does ensuring a school has a private sponsor mean maths lessons will be better?

Parental choice may be a worthy aim but where is the evidence that parents can be guaranteed the school they want for their child without paying for thousands of empty school places?

Despite ministers' promises to the contrary, past experience suggests one school's freedom is likely to become another's straitjacket as popular schools cream off even more of the brightest pupils.

Despite the antipathy of much of his party, Tony Blair heads for Brighton next week convinced his policies will be a hit with the voters. But he can no longer credibly claim to have the weight of evidence on his side.

Choice and diversity are part of new Labour's ideology in the same way that egalitarianism is part of the left's.

Perhaps in the year before a general election we should not be surprised that ministers are putting political concerns ahead of what works. But it is hard not to remember that new Labour was supposed to be different.


What has worked:

Literacy and numeracy strategies delivered an initial boost to test scores Measures to improve teacher recruitment (for example, training salaries, golden hellos) have helped tackle staff shortages

Excellence in Cities has helped raise standards by focusing resources on deprived areas

Sure Start has provided much needed support during children's early years Extra money for school buildings has improved classrooms across England and Wales.

Policy failures:

Fresh Start for failing schools was scrapped after high-profile problems Education action zones had little impact on standards and failed to attract the hoped-for private investment Curriculum 2000 A-level reform was rushed and followed by a crisis of confidence in A-level marking. Former chief inspector of schools Mike Tomlinson is now trying to sort out the mess.

LEA privatisation was quietly sidelined after evidence showed councils recovered faster without contracting out services "Earned autonomy" for secondary schools was part of the 2002 Education Act but has yet to be implemented.

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