Josephine Gardiner finds the major parties' education policies becoming ever closer. The relationship between Tory and Labour education policy grew yet more intimate this week as the Government announced that it would be providing Pounds 2 million next month to help primary schools to raise standards by setting targets for improvement.
In Excellence for Everyone, the Labour party's policy document on standards published late last year, there was considerable emphasis on the importance of establishing strategic plans for improvement, both by the local authorities and individual schools. "Every school needs rigorous targets to improve standards, " according to Labour.
Announcing the Government's scheme on Monday morning, education minister Robin Squire said: "Targets can be a significant tool in raising pupils' achievement." He dismissed a suggestion that the idea was Labour's: "Even an aggressively confident Labour party might hesitate to claim credit for target setting."
But Labour's David Blunkett displayed no such diffidence a few hours later, claiming that the idea was based on experiments in Birmingham, the education authority led by Tim Brighouse - the man former education secretary John Patten once insulted as "a nutter".
Mr Blunkett also accused the Government of stealing other Labour policies including baseline assessment for five-year-olds, home-school contracts and headteacher qualifications.
But whoever invented target-setting, it appears to work, according to the Office for Standards in Education, on whose report the Government's decision to provide extra money is based.
The inspectors looked at target-setting - by which they mean taking stock of strengths and weaknesses and identifying precise aims for classes, teachers or individual pupils - in 40 primary and secondary schools during last autumn term.
The report identifies schools which have raised standards using different forms of target-setting (OFSTED stresses the importance of finding a method to suit the individual ethos of the school) and some of the case histories are dramatic.
Once, the Belvidere school in Shrewsbury was an unpopular, underperforming 11-16 school with dwindling pupil numbers and appalling examination results. Eight years ago, just 11 per cent of pupils were getting the benchmark five GCSEs at grades A to C. Last year, this had risen to 65 per cent - well above the national average (43.5 per cent). OFSTED attributed this sharp improvement to "a determined and systematic approach led by the senior team"; departments were held to account for their exam results, high attainers were identified and pushed, parental opinion on all aspects of school life was surveyed, classrooms and corridors were smartened up.
Another underperforming school, Easington Lane primary in Sunderland, raised key stage 1 scores in reading at national curriculum level 2 from 17 per cent to 38 per cent over two years, and from 4 per cent to 15 per cent at level 3. Similar leaps were achieved in maths. This was done when the head gained the confidence of all staff and involved everyone in devising action plans, inspectors said.
All the examples stress the importance of strong leadership from the head.
OFSTED also identified considerable confusion in schools about the purpose and relevance of national targets for improvement. In some cases there was outright hostility from teachers who considered them unrealistic or irrelevant. Many classroom teachers had never heard of them; one head did not understand the difference between national targets and the targets he was supposed to be setting in his own school. Others resented being asked to worry about Britain's industrial competitiveness on top of everything else: "I don't think about the Pacific Rim when I am thinking about my school."
The Pounds 2 million from the Government will be distributed among 23 education authorities. One is the London borough of Lewisham, which is also among the 26 local authorities currently trying out Labour's policies on standards. Lewisham is praised in Excellence for Everyone for its work on target-setting.
Setting Targets to Raise Standards: A Survey of Good Practice - available from the Department for Education and Employment.