Week in perspective;Briefing;The week in education

17th September 1999 at 01:00
Standards fillip for Blunkett

IF David Blunkett has any intention of continuing as Education Secretary after 2002 he will be a happier man this week.

One of his first promises following Labour's historic victory in May 1997 was that he would resign if the schools failed to reach new achievement targets for 11-year-olds set by his department.

At the time the targets were generally held to be demanding, and many believed they could not be achieved: 75 per cent reaching the expected level in maths and 80 per cent in English. The doubters seemed to be right last year when the improvement rate in English was disappointing and the rate for maths actually fell - largely, according to ministers, as a result of a new mental arithmetic test which had made the tests harder.

But with this week's announcement - maths up a dramatic 10 percentage points to 69 per cent and English up 5 points to 70 per cent - the Government seems set to meet its goals, possibly even a year ahead of schedule. That would enable Mr Blunkett to announce he had fulfilled his pledge before the expected date of the next election in the summer of 2001.

Ministers put the abrupt jump in the pass-rate down to the success of its literacy and numeracy strategies - with many schools taking up the numeracy hour a year ahead of its national introduction this month. But there were inevitable accusations from traditionalists, with the Campaign for Real Education claiming the results were still open to manipulation despite last year's clamp-down on a number of schools found to have opened their test papers early.

Ministers were able to point to a recent inquiry led by Jim Rose, former director of inspections for the Office for Standards in Education, which rejected claims that the key stage 2 tests were open to abuse.

Older students also look set to feel the impact of the Government's standards drive. Following her announcement in March, education minister Baroness Blackstone gave further details this week of the "world-class" tests that will enable leading universities to distinguish between pupils with similar A-level grades.

Initially the Government's Qualifications and Curriculum Authority proposed these tests would be set in just six subjects: English, maths, chemistry, physics, history and French. But, following lobbying from headteachers who argued it would be unfair to able candidates in other subjects, the tests have been extended to cover biology, geography, economics, religious studies, German, Spanish and Latin. But Lady Blackstone has rejected calls to introduce world-class tests in business studies.

If the focus of the week was on tests, for the teacher unions - assembled in Brighton for the Trades Union Congress - the big debate was on pay.

While unions were able to put on a united front with a joint submission on next year's salaries' claim, they appeared sharply divided on their response to the Government's plans to introduce performance-related pay.

In a TES article (Platform, page 15) Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, attacked Doug McAvoy's National Union of Teachers. He said that teachers' leaders must stop pretending the Government wanted to introduce "payment-by-results" and engage in a real debate to ensure their members were better and more fairly paid.

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