Will Tony's 'revolution' pass the test of time?

11th May 2007 at 01:00
Teachers are much better off, the workload deal was a masterstroke. But will academies really work, and are the tests, targets and tables too burdensome? William Stewart assesses the Blair record.

At some point in the next fortnight Tony Blair will stand up, no doubt in a gleaming school building, to make a valedictory speech about his record on education.

For a Prime Minister said to be obsessed with his "legacy", who famously announced that his top three priorities would be "education, education, education", the speech will be an important one.

He will be able to reel off an impressive list of statistics. Whether they will add up to long-lasting improvements is less clear.

There have been obvious benefits for teachers. Doubters need only look at the flashier motors in school car parks and interactive whiteboards in the classrooms. Teachers' average pay has risen by about 45 per cent in the past decade - well ahead of the average - although the performance pay system means they often jump through hoops to get it.

They also have more help, with an extra 154,000 support staff in schools since 1997.

But at the same time there has been an increasing demand for ever-improving test and exam results, prompting fears that dull "teaching to the test" is creating bored, disaffected pupils. Concerns about the flip side to the focus on "driving up standards" are growing. Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham university said: "Schools have been reduced to factories for producing test and exam scores."

Sir Al Aynsley Green, the Children's commissioner, has also questioned the focus on testing, and Christine Gilbert, chief schools inspector, has recommended an investigation into the effects of the regime.

Last weekend the National Association of Head Teachers passed a motion of no confidence in the Government's education policies. Tim Benson, head of Nelson primary school in east London, said: "In Tower Hamlets you can walk, in only a few minutes, from grandeur that takes your breath away to poverty that does the same thing. Does every child really matter? Or just those lucky enough to live in the right part of Tower Hamlets?" This is all a far cry from those first days in 1997 when ministers hit the ground running with an assault on low primary school standards through the numeracy and literacy strategies.

The Conservatives had already introduced a limited pilot of the approach.

But Mr Blair's aides argue that Labour had put the issue on the agenda while in opposition. Boasting of his legacy in a recent Commons debate, Mr Blair recalled the scrapping of Section 28, banning councils from "promoting" homosexuality, which was repealed in 2003.

But in policy terms there has been no Blairite revolution, more an evolution and re-branding of an existing Tory agenda with a generous dose of extra cash.

The academies the Prime Minister believes will transform inner-city education are essentially beefed-up versions of the city technology colleges first introduced under Margaret Thatcher.

For foundation schools read grant maintained schools with the sharp edges taken off. And trust schools, initially spun as another radical step forward, are no more than foundation schools linked up to external organisations.

The specialist schools movement has expanded exponentially under Mr Blair and been opened up to all secondaries, but it is yet another scheme with Conservative roots. New Labour has given these ideas a softer focus, with more equitable funding and, latterly, the promotion of collaboration between schools. But the drive for greater accountability and pressure on "failing" schools through the Ofsted testing, targets and tables approach pioneered by the Tories has only intensified.

Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, played a major role in education during both administrations, cannily quitting the Conservatives in 1997. He believes the key difference under Labour has been sustained funding. "When I first set up the city technology colleges in 1987, we had to stop in 1990 because of the crisis in the exchange rate," he said. "But, since 1997, funds have always been there to support the policy. That is critically important."

They are words echoed by anyone you ask about the Prime Minister's record.

Whatever else has happened, the money has flowed, and in the massive schools rebuilding programme, at least, it has had tangible results.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "Blair has put his money where his mouth is, there is no doubt about that." Mick Brookes, NAHT general secretary, describes the investment in education in deprived areas as "remarkable and unprecedented".

Such warm words from union leaders are no mean accolade for a premier who, according to Anthony Seldon, his biographer and master of Wellington College, has shown "contempt for the education establishment".

Number 10, with its in-house education advisers - notably Andrew, now Lord, Adonis - has always been keen to push ahead against "the forces of conservatism".

Five education secretaries have been left to bridge the gap with the teaching profession, with varying degrees of success. At times the strain has showed. David Blunkett is reported to have shouted, "What's the bloody point of my being here?" when he was prevented by Downing Street in 1998 from replacing the combative Chris Woodhead as head of Ofsted.

The Blair government was never afraid to upset the teaching unions, introducing the General Teaching Council, a potential competitor, during its first term. Like Mr Blair's other education quangos, the National College for School Leadership and the Learning and Skills Council, it has not been a roaring success.

But the handling of potential union opposition was. The deal hatched in 2002 to tackle teacher workload in return for allowing support staff a bigger role in the classroom was a masterstroke.

While the National Union of Teachers has been left in the cold struggling to make its voice heard, the social partnership with other unions has allowed many potentially damaging differences to be resolved behind closed doors.

Support staff numbers may have increased dramatically, but so have teachers, and Downing Street believes one of the biggest successes has been changes in the way they are trained. In 1997 only a few hundred were receiving initial training based in schools. Today, with the advent of the graduate teacher programme, numbers have increased to one in six.

Mr Blair's advisers argue that this helps to provide a profession rooted more in practice than theory, better able to deal with issues such as discipline. They dismiss claims that professional judgment is being undermined by the national curriculum and pressure to "teach to the test".

Complaints that schools have been overloaded by eye-catching initiatives are also given short shrift. Good schools have the confidence to pick and choose the ideas that will make a difference to them, the advisers argue.

In time, Mr Blair could find that the "hand of history" has dulled much of the lustre on his education record. Durham university academics have long argued that the much-heralded primary achievements are more an indication of improvement in pupils' capacity to pass tests than in their ability in English, maths or science.

And improvements in GCSE results may not look as good when schools' use of vocational exams to push them up the league tables are taken into account.

Some academies are showing encouraging signs, but it is too early to judge the programme a real success.

Today's new school buildings may not seem as attractive when they are still being paid for under PFI deals decades later. And by allowing support staff to take classes and teach children, could the Blair years end up being seen as the beginning of the end for teacher professionalism?

All possible, but far from certain. John Dunford, the Association of School and College Leaders' general secretary, cautions: "When we complain about testing and overload, it is really important not to forget just how depressing it was in the 1980s and up to 1997 to work in schools for a Government that did not seem to believe in state education."

That is one thing that Mr Blair, the first serving Prime Minister to send his children to state schools, could never be accused of.

Tony Blair's schooldays

(Clockwise from top left)

Shown the door in Newcastle in 2006; a study in concentration in Derbyshire; still going strong on a charity mile run with pupils from Emerson Park school in Newham, east London.

Photographs: PAPhotos; Guzelian

A decade of growth: how the figures add up

1997 NOW (or latest available figure)

Average teachers' pay pound;22,790 pound;32,760 (2005)

Number of teaching assistants. 32,800 113,400

Number of teachers 412,800 448,200

Number of teachers in academies. 0 3,200

Average primary class size 27.5 26.2

Average secondary class size 21.7 21.3

Number of specialist schools 245 2,695

UK pupils, 18 and under, accepted into higher education 154,764 181,140 (2006)

16 - 18-year-olds not in education or training 23.6% 23.8%(2005)

Pupils gaining 5 good GCSEs 45% 59.2%

Looked after children gaining 5 good GCSEs 7%(2000) 12%(2006)

Pupils gaining 5 good GCSEs including Eng and maths 41.9%(2003) 45.8%

Half days missed through unauthorised absence 0.7% 0.79%(0506)

Annual capital investment in schools pound;700m pound;6bn

Secondaries fewer than 25% with five good GCSEs 600 50

Comprehensives 70% or more pupils with five good GCSEs 83 604

Proportion local council schools money delegated to schools 70% 90%

Proportion 11 year-olds reaching expected standard English 63% 79%

Proportion 11 year-olds reaching expected standard maths 62% 76%

Revenue funding per pupil pound;3,050 (9798) pound;4,730 (0708)

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?

Subscribe

To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers

Comments

Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
 
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today