Top of the priority pops

Tes Editorial

An edited version of John Major's speech to the Grant-Maintained Schools Foundation. Five years ago, I promised we would put education at the top of our priorities. A great deal has been done. We have brought in national tests, published performance tables. We have introduced new vocational qualifications. We have given nearly one in three young people the chance of a university education and soon will begin to offer universal nur-sery education for four-year-olds.

These are the building blocks of a revolution. They are milestones towards making British children the best educated in the world."

Assessment and testing: "This summer, nearly two million pupils took part in the statutory tests. Some commentators predicted chaos. It was not. That it took place so smoothly is a big achievement and I should like to express my thanks to all those teachers who made that possible.

Our plans for nursery education will give those early stages of literacy and numeracy a big push. Universal provision of good pre-school education for four-year-olds, with a clear statement of what we aim for children to have learned, will for the first time give us a clear basis of measuring the child's progress in the key skills of literacy and numeracy. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority yesterday launched their consultation on this. When it is in place, we will have a sensible basis for simple baseline testing at the start of primary school, which will put in place the foundation stone for testing at all the key stages in school life."

Inspections: "Tests and performance tables will measure standards - help force them up. Tests are the raw data that tell us about standards. But they need to be backed up. Inspection is a key element in ensuring that they are acted upon. I am determined that they will be. So, I am very pleased to say today that the Office for Standards in Education will, this autumn, be inspecting the teaching of reading in the three boroughs which get some of the poorest results at the end of compulsory schooling. And from now on, inspections will increasingly focus on those authorities or schools where standards are poor; those responsible need not be surprised if "an inspector calls".

Raising standards and quality in county schools is, or should be, one of the main functions of a local education authority. I can announce to-day that the inspectorate will, over the coming year, be reporting on what LEAs are actually doing about this and how effective they are.

The nature of school inspections is also changing. Too often, inspections were the occasion for foisting a particular, "progressive" dogma on teachers. Those schools which cleaved to academic standards and dared to use whole-class teaching - were branded reactionary. It would be easy now to swing completely the other way. I think that would be wrong. Done well, group work, even topic work, have their place. But so too do whole-class teaching, and hard-edged, single subject teaching from seven or eight years old onwards. What matters is helping teachers to use the right mix at the right time.

So let me make clear today the policy that the Chief Inspector will be following. Inspection will in the future focus more sharply and rigorously on what really matters to parents the standard of pupil achievement and the quality of education provided. They will be less bureaucratic and burdensome on the school. And the language in which the reports are written will be good, plain English, shorn of unintelligible education jargon.

There is one other aspect of inspections that I can announce today. The performance of a school or subject department depends on the quality of each individual teacher within it. Yet until now, inspectors' reports cover only the performance of a school or department as a whole. In future, they will be able to report direct to the head where they have seen particularly good or bad teaching during an inspection."

Sanctions: "I know that many teachers are concerned about the uncertainty about their powers to impose sanctions on unruly behaviour if the child's parents are indifferent or even hostile; schools are unsure that if they have a disruptive child in the class, they will get the help they need, when they need it, to sort the problem out, Gillian Shephard and her people are now engaged in discussion with teachers' representatives about these real concerns on discipline. None of these issues is straightforward. But I am determined that we work with teachers to overcome these problems and, as soon as we are able - which I expect to be soon - we will announce our plans.

For those children who cannot, without disrupting their own and others' education, stay in mainstream schools, there are special units operated by local authorities. The jury remains out on whether these are all effective. I believe that GM schools could be empowered to run similar arrangements. Later this month, Gillian Shephard will be inviting you in to agree with you what needs to be cleared out of the way and how. And if your ideas need new legislative powers, we will ask Parliament to provide them."

Self-governing schools: "I set out last month my ambition that all state schools should gain the benefits of becoming self-governing, independent schools free to parents. This is no distant aspiration. Gillian Shephard and her department are now looking at the detail of the implications of this policy and the practical options for how we might bring that about.

Church schools should have wide autonomy. Grant-maintained status is the logical choice for many church schools. It enables them to enjoy every single advantage of being a church school, with the benefits of self-governing on top.

Many church schools have already become GM. More want to. So, Gillian Shephard will next month be consulting about the option of a fast-track route to full self-governing status. If a school's governors, with the prime interests of parents at heart, and the trustees - representing the Church's interest - agree on moving to self-government, then they should be able to do so simply and quickly. Subject to that consultation, we will introduce legislation in the next year.

When, last month, I spoke of independent, self-governing state schools, I meant just that. Over the years we have allowed too much regulation to creep back in. We propose to change that during the next 18 months. You have made your schools the success they are. I see no reason why self-governing schools should not decide their own policy on over-subscription; nor about how you maintain the ethos of your school. I am therefore today announcing a review of these procedures. Moreover, if a school and parent conclude, for example, that it would be better going towards single-sex rather than co-educational, then I can say today that Gillian Shephard will look sympathetically at that request.

Last but not least, there is the issue of the funding formula. I know that some among you are worried that the present arrangements allow LEAs to manipulate the formula to your disadvantage.

We have a common funding formula for GM schools in 22 areas, which frees them from financial ties to the local authority. It is not perfect. No funding formula ever is. The answer, in the longer term, is a national funding formula."

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