Tony's second-term report

22nd April 2005 at 01:00
Despite meeting many pledges, Labour's record since 2001 is not unblemished. Warwick Mansell, Michael Shaw and Helen Ward report

Four years on from the last election, has Labour lived up to its promises?

The party feels confident enough about its record to make schools policy a central part of its pitch for another term - yet the verdict on the past four years appears mixed.

A good place to start examining Labour's record is with the promises it made at the 2001 election - and it is striking just how many it has managed to keep.

Its headline pledge, 10,000 more teachers, has been met easily, with numbers up by an impressive-sounding 17,000. Opposition parties have raised questions about whether all of these new bodies are fully-qualified graduates, but the story Labour has to tell here is positive.

Then there is investment in school buildings: an extra pound;8 billion pledged for the years 2001-04 was actually surpassed by pound;2bn.

Tony Blair also promised to expand the number of specialist schools, ensuring every secondary had a distinct mission. Four years on, the wish to extend specialisation to every secondary is still an aspiration in this year's manifesto. But growth in the specialist movement has been dramatic, with 2,100 schools now signed up.

On childcare, the 2001 promise was for all three-year-olds to be entitled to a nursery place by 2004. This pledge was fulfilled last year.

And backing all this up was more funding: more than 5 per cent extra for education, in real terms, annually in the years to 2004. Technically this has not been met. Real funding increased by 5 per cent in 2002-03 and 7 per cent the following year, but by only 3 per cent in 2004-05.

Looking beyond the manifesto, Labour's most striking success has been alleviating the teacher shortages which dominated headlines back in 2000 and 2001. In August 2001, secondary schools were reporting 5,000 vacancies.

A TES survey at the time suggested the shortfall was so severe that one in five secondary heads was unhappy with recent appointments. Several schools went on a four-day week in 2001 because of staffing gaps, and foreign teachers were drafted in as never before.

Now, although shortages are still a serious problem for some schools, particularly in subjects such as maths and science, the situation has improved. The number in teacher training has risen from 31,000 in 2001 to 41,300 this year, the highest figure since 1975.

The Government's four-year drive to address teacher workload and allow qualified staff to concentrate on teaching, rather than administration, was born at the height of the shortage in 2001.

Ministers will point to progress made in taking bureaucratic tasks off teachers' hands, although inspectors last year said implementation of aspects of the workforce agreement had been patchy in many schools. But the true test of the workforce deal comes this September when all teachers will get half a day a week out of the classroom for marking and preparation.

Tackling pupil behaviour has proved even trickier. Ministers have talked of "zero tolerance" on classroom disruption, launched anti-bullying drives and called on heads to test pupils for drugs. A behaviour improvement programme provided schools in the most difficult areas with mentors, truancy sweeps, electronic registration systems and on-site police officers at a cost of Pounds 470 million.

But this has failed to dent the number who play truant. Labour missed its 2002 target of reducing unauthorised absence by a third, then missed an even softer target of cutting it by a tenth by 2004.

There is better news on behaviour: early research on the behaviour initiatives suggests they are having an impact at the 1,500 schools targeted. However, evidence from teachers' unions suggests that many teachers are still being threatened, sworn at and, in some cases, physically assaulted.

The issue attracting most attention in 2001, privatisation, is the one where Labour's record is most curious. Having fought to get privatisation on the agenda, ministers appear to be shying away from it on the ground.

Several highly controversial measures, including allowing companies to take over management of secondary school departments, gained copious media coverage in 2001. But by the time of a white paper later that year, these had been abandoned after complaints by unions and Labour backbenchers. The white paper had a few eye-catching measures including forcing local authorities to consider bids from companies to take over failing schools.

But in reality, few firms have been involved in state schools.

Private interest in running schools has largely been limited to the controversial academies policy. The Government hopes to see 200 secondaries relaunched with sponsors and new buildings by 2010.

Privatisation has ploughed on in some areas out of the media spotlight.

Capita's takeover of the primary and key stage 3 strategies and Pearson's buy-out of the Edexcel exam board are perhaps the most notable examples.

On teachers' pay, staff seem to have done better under Labour's second term. Pay rates for teachers in their sixth year of employment rose by 15 per cent to pound;22,035 in 1997-2001, compared to 21 per cent (pound;28,005) in 2001-05.

Yet exam and test results perhaps show best why Labour has less to boast about in education than it did at the last election.

In 2001, the Government could point to soaring numbers of pupils achieving the target level 4 in key stage 2 tests as evidence that its primary policies, including the introduction of the literacy and numeracy strategies and smaller class sizes, had borne spectacular fruit. There is no such success story this time around. Labour missed its highest-profile target in education, for the 2002 KS2 test results, and this contributed to Estelle Morris's departure as education secretary.

In 2001, Labour promised it would preside over a "step-change" improvement in secondaries. Few would argue that there is conclusive evidence of this having occurred.

In fact, the review of the 14-19 curriculum which offered a chance to radically transform secondary learning, created much bitterness. Ministers spent three years reviewing 14-19, offering the prospect, under the Tomlinson inquiry, of broader study for most youngsters and the end of the vocationalacademic divide.

Their decision to disregard Tomlinson earlier this year may have reassured voters who wanted to preserve A-levels, but it was badly received by the education world and left many wondering why the review was ever launched.

GCSE and A-level results have improved steadily, but this is tarnished by the annual debate over whether this means the exams are getting easier.

The key stage 3 strategy, introduced in 2001 to try to standardise teaching in the early secondary years, has not gone down badly with schools but, again, ministers did not hit their targets on results.

But many teachers would argue that the obsession of politicians and the media with exam and test scores is one of the most counter-productive features of the modern English schools system.

Although Labour backed down slightly on formal tests for seven-year-olds, which will now support teacher assessment, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been bolder, scrapping or downgrading all tests. Ministers say they are more in tune with voters' instincts than their counterparts elsewhere in the UK. Overall, although schools will welcome increased funding flowing their way, education does not seem to be the unqualified vote-winner for Labour that it was in 2001.


How Labour performed against its 2001 manifesto targets: 10,000 extra teachers.Hit: 17,000 extra teachers and numbers in teacher training at a 30-year high.

Raise education spending by more than 5 per cent in real terms each year 2001-4 and increase the share of national income spent on education.Maybe: Real increase only 3 per cent in 2004-05, but annual increase of 5.1 per cent in 2001-05.

A step-change in secondaries. Miss: Although GCSE and A-level results have improved steadily, and more than 2,000 schools now benefit from specialist status, it is hard to characterise this as a "step-change".

Every three-year-old entitled to a free nursery place in 2004.Hit by January 2004.

Invest pound;8 billion in buildings and equipment, 2001-4.Hit: pound;10bn spent in three years 2001-02 to 2003-04.

Eighty per cent of 11-year-olds scoring level 4 in English, and 75 per cent by 2002.Miss. 2002 figures were 75 per cent in English, 73 per cent in maths.

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