Standards: Forget poverty, look at the tables

11th April 1997 at 01:00
Whatever the Churches chose to say this week about the needs of the economically deprived, poverty is out as an educational issue and standards are in.

Whichever party forms the next government, in whatever combination, schools can expect a plethora of graphs, charts, benchmarks and targets. All will be designed to show that grim social circumstances are no bar to acceptable standards of literacy and numeracy.

Talk of standards dominates the education sections of the manifestos, as it has dominated the preceding months of political debate.

For the Conservatives this is home ground. They promise "national targets for school performance that reflect our objective of ensuring that Britain is in the top league of international standards across the whole spectrum of education". Every school must say how it will improve, and set targets relating to similar schools and national standards. Under-performance will not be tolerated.

This is not, in fact, wholly new. The 1997 Education Act requires schools to set targets and the work on national "benchmarks" has already been done by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. It can only rank as election promise rather than election fact because the targets and graphs are still in the warehouse.

Nor is it very different from the Labour manifesto's "zero tolerance of failure", its baseline assessment of pupils and year-on-year targets for improvement in every school. Within a decade, says Labour, every child would leave primary school with a reading age of at least 11. Similar targets are promised from a numeracy task force.

Like the Conservatives, (and despite the optimism among council politicians at the prospect of a Labour win) Labour takes a stony view of its old friends in the local education authorities. "The judge and jury of LEA performance will be their contribution to raising standards," intones the manifesto. Local authorities must demonstrate that every school is improving. Failing schools will be closed down and given a "fresh start".

Not even the Liberal Democrats offer an escape. Poor teachers will be sacked. Special literacy programmes will "ensure that 90 per cent of all pupils reach their expected reading age by 2005". And standards will improve.

There are, of course, some important differences in approach. The Conservatives still value performance tables and the party is promising yet more, to cover tests in all national curriculum subjects at the age of 14.

Their manifesto also strays on to the little-known ground of "ethos". Schools, they argue, will improve when allowed to forge identities of their own, rather in the manner of church-owned or grant-maintaine d schools. All schools will become "locally maintained", a status which entails still greater financial freedom from the local education authority and a move towards greater selectivity.

Much of the Conservative thinking is directed towards secondary education.Labour, in contrast, has emphasised the importance of basic achievement in the early years. Along with its promises about literacy and numeracy for primary pupils, the party has also guaranteed nursery places for all four-year-olds, and promised smaller class sizes (maximum 30) for five, six and seven-year-olds.

Labour has been criticised in some quarters for "selling out" to the spirit of league tables, encouraging parents to make simplistic comparisons between schools on the basis of crude data. Certainly the party is as confident as its political opponents that poverty is no excuse for a lack of achievement. But, another important difference, it believes that schools in disadvantaged areas have a harder job, and proposes to divert additional money to them through the proposed "education action zones".

The well-publicised Lib-Dem view is that additional money must first be raised through a penny on income tax before any such educational improvement can be seen.

Each party is working hard at its claim to hold a distinctive commitment to high standards. The Conservatives are scornful of Labour's new-found interest in eliminating failure. "If they're interested in improving standards, why for the past 18 years have they failed to deal with some of their own, dreadful LEAs?" asked a senior Tory source this week.

For its part Labour suggests that the Conservatives are concerned only with high standards for high achievers, arguing that the Government's selection policy has assumed many pupils would automatically fail. According to Labour, the Tories are concerned with the structure of the education system rather than with the basics of good teaching.

There is more common ground than clear blue water, however, at least in terms of how best to achieve the basics of literacy and numeracy. The importance of times-tables and good, interactive, whole-class teaching is generally recognised while advisers of all political shades have been earnestly examining methods used abroad, from Switzerland to Taiwan. Decades of economic under-performance and less than flattering international comparison appear to have made their mark.

Nicholas Pyke

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