The four pillars of first-rate education

Podium: From the Demos Education Lecture by the Head of the Government 's Standards and Effectiveness Unit
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THE GOVERNMENT has embarked on its attempt to transform education with energy and purpose. This is an opportunity to explain the four themes or pillars that underlie the range of initiatives taken since the election.

First, the creation of a world-class education service is a five- to 10-year project. In the past, government interest in education has come and gone, mostly gone. For most of the post-war era governments left it to others to make what running there was.

Last year's White Paper "Excellence in Schools" represents a new departure. It describes a comprehensive pro-gramme and targets for 2002. It will ensure sustained priority for education throughout this Parliament.

Second, being world class surely means enabling everyone to reach their full potential. Far from being about levelling down as some have recently suggested, it is about levelling up. It is about enabling the many to achieve standards that until recently we only provided for the few.

It is not consistent with a world-class service that there is so much variation in the performance of schools, even after controlling their intakes, or that more than 50,000 pupils leave school every year with no qualifications.

The Government's approach to equal opportunities is designed to tackle these deep-seated problems. The foun-dation of any systematic approach is good data. There is no education system in the world as rich in data as this one.

The Government's approach to tackling problems revealed by the data has been a robust one. It has insisted that there should be high expectations of everyone, regardless of their background. As ministers put it: "Poverty is no excuse."

That is why the literacy target we have set for 11-year-olds is a high one, set at the level necessary for a pupil to succeed at secondary level. Some have suggested introducing lower targets for pupils who have fallen behind at age seven, but that would simply build in an assumption of continued failure. A catch-up programme is being designed that will ensure targeted additional support for every child who has fallen behind by age seven. Similarly, the Social Exclusion Unit report recommended a full timetable for every excluded pupil.

The Government is also determined to avoid the flaw of much old-fashioned thinking that led people to equate equity with uniformity. The total number of specialist secondary schools will soon be 330. The first Muslim voluntary- aided schools have been established. This Government is promoting diversity.

Third, children's performance is influenced not only by school but also by their family circumstances and their opportunities to learn outside the formal school day.

Homework guidelines will set expectations so every child does the amount of homework that is the norm in the best schools. Home-school agreements will create the relationships between home and school on which success depends.

The fourth pillar relates to how these ambitious ideas can be put into practice.Governments have almost always talked the language of partnership. For most of this century, a cosy, unreported, tripartite "partnership" of central government, local government and teacher organisations ran the education system. In a leisurely way it worked for a system in which change was rare and slow.

No-one now would accept this. Education is for everyone. Parents, governors, business and community organisations all demand their say.

This Government is taking the opportunity to build a new set of partnerships which are better than those of the past, not only because they are more open and inclusive, but also because they share a sense of urgency and purpose. Hence the Government's willingness to learn from "what works" wherever it works, as the radical and innovative "education action zone" proposals demonstrate.

Hence the appointment of primary and secondary heads to work as policy advisers. Hence, too, the emphasis on consulting parents. It is also working with independent schools.

The significance of these partnerships should not be underestimated. They are not simply the key to getting things done effectively and urgently, they are a recognition that government alone cannot create a world-class education system. As David Blunkett has said, we can no longer afford a culture of complacency.

If we want a successful education we need a culture characterised, not by a traditional British shrug of resignation, but by a sense of what is possible if only we work together.