A vision, leaks and dissenting voices

Frances Rafferty on the flurry of policies produced during Labour's first six months. An announcement a day and a leak every other is how Labour's education performance over the past six months has been described.

Since May 2 there has been a great flurry of activity at the Department for Education and Employment. The new Government came in with a vision. It wanted to drive up standards and revolutionise the culture of education.

In the White Paper, Excellence in Schools, David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, says: "Everyone has a part to play." The document is the blueprint for the vision and it covers everything from nutritional requirements for children, to qualifications for headteachers to after-school homework centres to education action zones.

It is too early to tell if the policies have worked - the legislation putting many in place has not even been published yet. But Labour has won support for its early actions, abolishing the Assisted Places Scheme and scrapping nursery vouchers.

The Government's rejection of the Conservative's model of a free market in education, where good schools will win pupils and bad schools go to the wall, has been popular. But there is also concern that many Tory reforms, the inspection service, performance league tables and bureaucracy remain intact.

"Having been so vitriolic in opposition, politicians strain their own credibility in expecting us to forget everything they said and "modernise" or "get real"," said Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers.

Labour's own model is seen by critics as an increasingly interventionist, centralised one, where the Government sets class sizes, imposes literacy and numeracy hours, recommends appropriate hours of homework, gets tough on target setting and talks of zero tolerance of failure.

But when teachers' leaders have dissented from the Government's view, they have been accused by ministers of being negative.

The other side of the coin is its commitment to consultation. Trade union leaders find what they say is listened to - if not always acted upon. They welcome a return from the cold, from the Siberian exile of the Conservative government.

More than 8,000 responses to the White Paper have been received and a compromise was reached when the bishops objected to proposed reforms to church schools (see right). Ministers say other changes will be made in the light of the responses, but the overwhelming opposition to foundation schools - the new category for grant-maintained schools - will not be heeded.

A vast array of task groups and working parties have been set up. One member said: "They are set up very much under the terms of the Government. We will have to wait and see what they achieve."

The policy on literacy and numeracy has populist appeal. A TES opinion poll discovered the proposed move to concentrate on the basics has support with primary teachers. The literacy and numeracy targets have been questioned, but many find it hard to criticise a Government which says it will be judged on them.

The summer literacy schools were judged a success by those taking part, but their long-term impact needs to be assessed.

One governor warned: "They should not become too taken up with literacy and numeracy targets to the detriment of a well-balanced curriculum. They are riding a tiger and must make sure the tiger becomes a pussy cat."

The Government has persuaded the teacher unions to devise dismissal procedures so that incompetent teachers can be removed from the classroom earlier. But battles between the two groups loom. The setting up of the General Teaching Council could be one.

The general secretaries of the three largest teacher unions this week in The TES (see page 12) all want to support the drive to raise standards. But, Doug McAvoy of the National Union of Teachers said: "While promoting education, the NUT will protect its members from excessive workload and from the effects of hastily implemented and sometimes ill-thought policies.".

The Government believes teachers must take part of the blame for underachievement.

That is the basis of their pressuresupport mantra. Yet, proposals for new qualifications, for example the fast-track to headship, and the advanced skills teacher have not won great support.

One key component of the vision is the role of the local education authority. Graham Lane, the Labour chair of the Local Government Association, is full of praise for the Government. "It has done more for education in six months than the Tories did in six years," he said.

Some of his colleagues are more wary. "It isn't as local government friendly as we hoped," said one. "It is happy to use us as agents but it doesn't really trust the elected members."

Leader, page 18

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