Things can only get (even) better

25th May 2001 at 01:00
FORGIVE me for making an assumption, but it's one most people seem to share: Labour is going to be in power for the next four or five years.

At the end of the first four years, we have ended up pretty much where most of us thought we would. Things are better, but not that much better. Some foundations have been set. But there has been too much top-heavy bureaucracy.

Labour has been nothing if not consistent: in opposition it flagged up almost everything it has done in government. In opposition, few people believed it when it talked about such departures for the party as co-operation with the private sector and closing failing schools. So where is the party likely to go in its second term?

For the past four years the emphasis has been on primary, rather than secondary, education. Unless you get the basics right, all the specialist schools in the world will get you nowhere if you are playing catch-up all day. Now that primary schools are improving, the second term will focus on secondary schools.

The most common complaint from teachers is, rightly, the level of central interference. But think about it from the Government's perspective. After 18 years in opposition, you come into office determined to make big improvements. It's hardly human nature to think that the best way to do that is to let go; rather, you want to take hold of everything you can and make sure that it is done the way your evidence suggests that it should be done.

Four years on, I think the message is now getting home. Future reforms will be far less prescriptive, and will work on the basis that variety is the spice of life. That will mean not just the extension of specialist schools and City Academies, but also the introduction of a British version of Charter Schools, an American idea which has been hugely successful and allows new, publicly funded schools to be set up with diffrent curricula, ethos, and ambitions.

Last year I visited the Walter Sisulu school in Harlem, in the heart of one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the United States. It was incredibly moving to walk into an oasis of learning and see the bright, attentive faces. The headteacher told me that for years he had been told that such a thing could be not be done given the levels of poverty, but the Charter Schools initiative enabled him to show that it could - at no extra cost to the public purse, and merely by giving committed teachers the ability to teach in the manner they saw fit.

Fundamental to reform has to be the removal of the surplus places rule. If a good school wants to expand, it is sheer madness for the state to prevent it by bureaucratic diktat. Labour's plans for spreading success will in large measure be determined by whether or not it has the political will to take on the vested interests - the local education authorities and failing schools who live in fear of competition - behind the rule.

Labour will also step up its co-operation with the private sector, both in terms of contracting out the running of failing LEAs and schools, and in links between private and state schools. Between 1998 and the end of 2000, pound;2.2 million was handed over as start-up money for projects which helped such co-operation; but only 12 per cent of applications were successful. Clearly there is huge scope for expansion, and this could well take bolder form. Look first, perhaps, to areas such as inner London where state sixth-form provision is paltry, and I would not be surprised to see real co-operation here.

We may not have heard "education, education and education" this time round, but education remains the touchstone of Labour's success.

Analysis, 26, 27

Stephen Pollard is senior fellow at the Centre for the New Europe, a Brussels think-tank

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