Throwing out the baby

18th June 2004 at 01:00
Abolishing the standards and effectiveness unit is a serious mistake, writes Conor Ryan.

The Government's Standards and Effectiveness Unit, which oversees literacy and numeracy strategies, is being axed. Excellence in Cities, which provides mentors and gifted and talented programmes to inner-city schools, may be scrapped. Ofsted inspections are to be slimmed down.

Headteachers' leaders cheer the changes, believing they will bring less interference and simplified funding. But, the Government, zealously shedding a reputation for centralisation, could be throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Labour undoubtedly had too many targets and initiatives in its first term.

Ministers rightly reduced their number. Yet, abolishing the SEU, which employs just 145 staff, could be a serious mistake. The unit has given focus and drive to the Government's standards agenda that it was created to help implement within the Department for Education and Skills.

Yes, Minister fans will recognise these are not traditional Whitehall watchwords. The SEU breached conventions, too, by bringing headteachers and other experts from the real world into the education department, to help to improve policy effectiveness.

As a result, the literacy and numeracy strategies have transformed primary school teaching. And working on a philosophy of "intervention in inverse proportion to success", hundreds of failing schools were helped to recover, while the results of many of the country's weakest schools have improved.

Yet, despite this substantial progress, too many pupils in secondary schools still don't get good GCSEs, and a quarter of primary pupils still fall below the expected literacy and numeracy standards. So, this is an odd time to abolish the section of the DfES best equipped to provide the strategic direction and advice needed to bring about further improvements.

The DfES certainly has to absorb substantial job cuts. But one suspects that is not the real reason why this unit is going. Its abolition feels more like Whitehall politics: those who tried to stifle the SEU at birth have finally won. The education department can return to its old ways. What is less clear is why ministers have allowed the mandarins this victory.

But the axe apparently doesn't stop there. Last week's TES reported that Excellence in Cities also faces the chop. Schools that have employed learning mentors or provided gifted and talented programmes would no longer get a separate funding stream for them.

Despite heads' constant calls for "simplified" funding streams, the truth is that when the money is absorbed into the general pot, it tends to disappear. Which is why many schools faced serious budget problems last year.

Unless the Government changes its mind about Excellence in Cities - or sends the same money direct to targeted inner-city schools - it could find itself dealing with new funding crises ahead of next year's expected general election.

To be fair, the third of the changes, the new "short, sharp inspections", have much more to commend them. Chief inspector David Bell's proposals may save Ofsted money, but they also add up to a coherent package. Three-yearly inspections will ensure that reports are up to date. Scrapping extended notice should reduce staffroom stress. Shorter reports should be more readable for parents.

Yet, even this assumes that schools will quickly become sufficiently advanced in using self-evaluation. Unless they do, the absence of separate reporting on each subject in the new inspections could leave many curriculum weaknesses unreported and unaddressed. Parents, too, may have a snappier summary, but be less well informed.

These changes seem to be part of the Government's attempt to outflank its political opposition by promoting less centralisation. But they overestimate the strength of their opponents' arguments. After all, the Tories seem to think that giving parents the paper promise of a pupil passport will improve choice and standards, but have nothing to say about oversubscribed or failing schools. The Liberal Democrats think money is all that matters.

Instead of abandoning what works, the Government should expose its opponents' imperial new clothes and start to tell people about its own genuine achievements.

Greater independence and self-reliance undoubtedly helps successful schools to thrive. However, the evidence of recent years is that weak schools - which often serve the poorest communities - improve when they receive external help and monitoring. They could be the real losers in this new laissez-faire world.

Conor Ryan was special adviser to David Blunkett at the Department for Education and Skills, 1997-2001

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