What we really, really want

9th May 1997 at 01:00
In a series of open letters, teachers, union bosses, parents and chief education officers tell David Blunkett what they consider to be the most pressing issues for the profession. Nicolas Barnard and Mark Whitehead report

From teachers to chief officers, parents to union bosses, the message to David Blunkett is the same: please like us.

Raising the morale of the teaching profession is the single loudest plea from the combined voice of those associated with our schools as they emerge from 18 years of Conservative government to life under Labour.

In a series of open letters to the new Education and Employment Secretary, they return time and again to the shattered morale of school staff, and their fear of more of the same.

The TES invited a wide-ranging group of people to open a dialogue with Mr Blunkett in his first full week of office. We asked them to suggest one immediate priority - something for him to do before he takes off his jacket - as well as their wishes for the medium and the long term.

Once Mr Blunkett has changed the tone of Sanctuary Buildings pronouncements to cast a more positive light on education, he faces calls for more funding, more freedom to innovate, and some more unusual ideas, from training for parents on how to help in the classroom to whom he should take out to dinner.

There are calls for more investment in inner-city schools to offset the effects of urban deprivation. As one contributor says, for those children education is not a luxury. It is an escape route from poverty. When it comes to the spectre of under-achievement, the message is clear. Teachers have a great enthusiasm to raise standards. But the Education Secretary must harness that energy.

Mr Blunkett has clear ideas on education. But one message that comes over loud and clear from teachers is that they want him to talk to them, to get out into schools to keep up to date with life at the chalkface.

Muslim schools deserve state funding

Dear David, Lying on your desk today are applications for grant-maintained status from two Muslim schools, Islamia Primary in Brent and Al-Furqan Primary in Birmingham. A useful first act would be for you to approve them.

It makes little difference whether they become GM, foundation schools, voluntary-aided or whatever. But they want to be state schools. Islamia has been seeking state funding since 1984. It would establish the precedent that we are accepted as citizens.

In the medium term, some sort of effort is needed to raise achievement of all pupils, but specifically of Muslim children.

It is part of a wider problem; we need empathy for our position as Muslims in society. It means taking account of curriculum requirements, facilities to practise our faith, and less hostility if a young man wants to grow a beard or a girl wants to wear a scarf in school.

In the long term, you must find a way to stop education being a political football. I would like to see what goes on in classrooms and lecture theatres across the country taken more seriously.

Ibrahim Hewitt Development officer of the Association of Muslim Schools

Give more cash to city schools

Dear David, Your priority must be to level the playing field between inner-city schools and those in the outer suburbs if your are to be serious about tackling under-achievement.

I associate under-achievement closely with the size of classes. Class size should be reduced in the primary and secondary sectors.

There needs to be a distinction in terms of resources between schools in the outer suburbs or more rural areas and those in the inner cities. Inner-city schools attract youngsters who are not very mobile in terms of their choice of school or their social and economic background.

To resource them on a par with schools that have greater mobility is a nonsense. I would not like to see grant-maintained schools interfered with in any shape or form, even if the Government does not want to continue the trend. Those that already exist are doing extremely well; their youngsters are doing extremely well. The Government should bring the rest up to their level.

In the three years we have been grant-maintained we have improved to a degree we would never have dreamt of if we had remained part of the local authority system.

Carlton Duncan Head of George Dixon GM School Edgbaston

Great opportunity to build a consensus in education

Dear David, The first thing you and your ministers must do, as you prepare to write your first White Paper, is to get out into our schools and talk to teachers and listen to teachers.

There is a great opportunity today to build consensus on school improvement.

But if you don't get it right in the early days, you've had it. Go out and build that consensus.

In the medium term, you must deliver your promises on nursery education.

I think the aspirations for early-years education, in terms of both quality and quantity, have to be met in reality. You have really got to move forward.

In the long term, and looking at the other end of the education range, we have to see something done about our disaffected youngsters.

You need to unleash the creativity of schools to deal with those youngsters.

That may involve being more flexible with the curriculum, getting into partership with colleges or making pre-16 links with employers.

But if by the end of this Parliament we have not started to tackle this problem, then the timebomb is ticking and the moment of explosion gets ever nearer.

David Bell Chief education officer Newcastle City Council

Consult the staff before taking action

Dear David, The new Government has the chance to create an education service with, at its heart, educational opportunity and achievement for all children. Success will come from listening and then doing.

Teachers want practical solutions to the problems they face. These can only be achieved through involvement. Teachers will expect Labour to talk to the union about the workable solutions that come from our independent research.

The National Union of Teachers does not seek favours: it seeks fairness. A new partnership with the new Government would form the basis of that fairness.

Reductions in class sizes, a stable, equitable funding system to meet need, a supportive evaluation and inspection system are all achievable. Re-directing money from the Assisted Places Scheme to reduce class sizes in the early years must be followed by eliminating oversized classes and underfunding.

A new role opens up for the Department for Education and Employment. Officials should be sent out into the field and required to find out what is really happening before advice is offered and decisions made.

Doug McAvoy General secretary National Union of Teachers

Small classes more conducive to learning

Dear David, I would be very pleased if you would arrange for more teachers to be employed so that we can reduce class sizes. Everyone in teaching recognises the simple logic that you can teach more effectively with fewer children in a room, and this applies not just to primary schools. Secondary schools would benefit just as much from smaller classes.

We also need more books and resources in information technology so that we can stop having to ask parents to fork out. Many parents are forced to raise money to pay for books and computers, but these are a basic entitlement for children.

Finally, all this should be happening in a pleasant environment that is conducive to learning, not in cold and crumbling schools, which are a national problem.

There should be an entitlement for all children to a decent standard of resources and accommodation.

If you manage to do all these things, we will have a much more highly motivated group of young people going through the schools and a less stressed workforce. These moves would be supported not only by most teachers but also by the majority of parents.

Enid Fitzgeorge-Butler, Head of Silverdale school, Sheffield, who sent children home last summer when a roof collapsed

Government must stem the exodus from teaching

Dear David, The 652 pages of job advertisements that have appeared in The TES over the past three weeks illustrate the potential crisis facing our education system.

You need to act immediately to convince heads and teachers still in schools that it is worth staying there.

First, you must persuade them that the Government sees school leadership as crucially important and regards teachers as an asset rather than a problem.

Creating a general teaching council would be a sign of trust.

Dropping the emphasis on league tables would show that you are moving away from the last government's "shame and blame" culture and adopting a more constructive approach to improvement.

Second, you should rationalise the various education quangos and put the excessive resources they consume to more productive uses.

Third, you and your Cabinet colleagues need to identify how a higher proportion of public spending can be directed to education.

Our education expenditure, as a percentage of our GDP, has slipped behind most of our fellow OECD countries and, if we are to motivate our young people and our teachers, it is imperative that we invest more in order to achieve a world-class education system.

Peter Mortimore Director Institute of Education London University

Boost for disadvantaged schools

Dear David, I would like you to address the issue of schools in areas of social disadvantage and give them an immediate boost.

These schools must have the best teachers, the best heads and appropriate funding to support them.

This will not come cheap: now that you are in, put the taxes up.

Then I would ask you to review curriculum overload at key stage 2. Primary teachers have great difficulty attending to literacy and numeracy because of the demands of other subjects.

This issue is essential if pupils are to access the full curriculum further up the ladder.

Flexibility is also necessary. Understanding the Greek myths is important, and for many pupils drugs education is urgent. We must be allowed to plan the curriculum according to need.

In the long term, I hope you will pay attention to lifetime learning. We need opportunities for everyone to learn in different ways without the current restrictions of time and place.

Schools and communities must be supported to work together so that the message is clear: learning doesn't stop when school is out.

Patricia Clark Head of Avondale Park primary school Notting Hill London W11

Equip pupils for the next century

Dear David, A couple of soundbites would satisfy my immediate wish: to hear you talking positively about the work the profession does.

Beyond that, I would like to see more support given to schools in poor areas. That means financial support for staff recruitment and equipment. Students from those areas are at least as entitled to a full curriculum as those more well off - if not more so. For those children, education is the way out.

Look at the socio-economic background of schools and start to use that information. Instead of the talk we have heard of a grammar school in every town, every school should be resourced to the standards of those grammar schools.

In the long term, we need scope to provide for individual students. The national curriculum is a great concept, but we've learnt the best bits and schools now need to be given back some leeway to prepare children for work, parenting and so on. They need to be equipped for the 21st century, and that doesn't necessarily mean saying you will have three lessons of French a week.

Anna White Appointed head of The Ridings School, Halifax, from September

Labour must take stronger line on pay

Dear David, The Labour party's gramophone needle seems to have got stuck in a failure groove.

I think the teaching profession's morale would be measurably improved if you were immediately to announce a national conference to trumpet success in state schools.

Over the next few years, your Government has got to be a good deal bolder when it comes to the crucial issue of teacher recruitment, retention and motivation.

Adhering to the last government's policy on public sector pay, as Gordon Brown has said he will, will not solve the problem. The bullet has got to be bitten. The longer you leave this festering sore, the more expensive the solution is going to be.

In the long term, we must look to a restoration of the enormous damage done to school budgets by 18 years of Conservative government. If the Conservatives cut the proportion of GDP spent on education by 25 per cent in real terms, that needs to be restored.

It cannot be done tomorrow, but it needs to be done as quickly as possible if your drive for excellent standards is to be fulfilled.

David Hart General secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers We need laws to enshrine rights of parents

Dear David, We hope the first term of Parliament will see legislation passed to enshrine the legal rights of parents at every school to form an association. At the moment, it is at the discretion of the school.

We would like to see two commissions set up, each with parental representation: one to carry out an audit of school resources and the other an audit of school buildings. They must be independent. We don't need another government quango.

Looking further ahead, we have two hopes for training. We want a module on working with parents in initial teacher-training courses for new teachers and in-service training for those already in post.

And we would like the Government to commission or fund a provider, hopefully the NCPTA, to train parents in working within schools. It is no use all of us going in if we don't do the right thing when we get there. That is going to require planning; it cannot be done quickly. But money for training must be available, and schools can then adapt that training to their own curriculum.

Margaret Morrissey Spokeswoman, National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations

Educating the whole person

Dear David,, Having responsibility for a new education authority founded on ideals and values, I've realised in the past five weeks how important it is to keep your eye on the ball and not forget those things that are important.

In your first few days, please scrap nursery vouchers and all the administrative costs that come from creating an artificial market. Read Trading Places by the Audit Commission and take its director, Andrew Foster, out to dinner.

In the medium term, set up a local, regional and national service that plans to raise standards and improve quality for learners of all ages and aptitudes. From a new unitary authority's point of view, I think all-purpose authorities working in a regional framework are the most efficient way of providing local government services.

In the long term, face Europe and take to heart the concept of lifelong learning. Celebrate the liberal arts tradition, which makes the English education system still the envy of the world. We have managed to enshrine literature, art, music in our curriculum and in the pastoral care we give learners. We try to care about the whole person. I think we should not lose sight of that.

Keith Bartley Director of education Rutland County Council

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