Education Audit: Teachers welcome extra spending but want a clearer vision of future

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The Independent Online

A quick stroll from the town centre to the school gates gives you a concrete example of how the extra money being ploughed into education is being spent.

Just across the road from Greenford High School in Ealing, a Thirties comprehensive with 1,500 pupils serving an urban area with its share of deprivation, a new primary school is being built. The secondary school is to move to new buildings within the next two years.

This is just as well. At present, classes are held in temporary huts and a Sixties, flat-roof extension, with all the problems that brings, such as leaky ceilings. "The buildings are awful," said Nancy Cockerell, 35, a geography teacher at the west London school who has to take classes in one of the huts.

Roger Thompson, the head of sixth-form studies, said: "By 1997, most of our schools were in a state of massive disrepair - not just those in deprived areas. We needed a capital investment.

"Now building is going on everywhere. I've been working in education since 1967 and I've never seen the like of it."

All to the good, then, and the £4bn building and repair programme is considered by staff to be one of the success stories of Labour's six-year rule.

Yet teachers at Greenford are wary of the public finance initiative deal providing them with their new buildings - under which they lease them from the developers.

But while the capital investment is welcome, much of the euphoria felt by members of the staff on 1 May 1997, when Labour came into office has been diluted.

On the face of it, the welcome for the victory in the school might seem surprising; it was one of those that opted out of council control under the Conservatives and stood to lose its prestigious grant maintained status (and preferential funding) if Labour came to power.

But the decision to opt out was not made on philosophical grounds. The local education authority, Ealing, had been planning to abolish the school's sixth form. Opting out was the only way to preserve it.

"We felt we had a government that was committed to education, education, education," said Kate Griffin, the headteacher at Greenford High since 1991. "There was a huge sense of expectation.

"There was a concern, though, that things weren't going to change in the way that we thought." Mrs Griffin singled out Labour's "naming and shaming" of the 18 worst schools within three weeks of taking office as an indication of things to come. Both she and Mr Thompson also cited the retention of Chris Woodhead as chief schools inspector. Mr Woodhead, had vowed on his first day in office to get rid of 18,000 incompetent teachers.

"In putting their policies into practice, there was a kind of schizophrenia," Mrs Griffin said.

The talk was all of giving heads the freedom to innovate and raise standards. In one of his first acts, David Blunkett - Tony Blair's first secretary of state for education - paraded Sue Pearson, the head of a successful inner-city primary school, before a head teacher's conference to show that the future lay in their hands.

But the reality was more bureaucracy, such as the new standards and effectiveness unit at the Department for Education.

"The number of people working in some areas of the department has escalated beyond belief," Mrs Griffin said. "When [Professor] Michael Barber [the unit's head] left [in 2002], there were about 170 people working in there when schools were crying out for staff."

Greenford is now a specialist language college - one of more than 1,000 new specialist secondary schools created under Labour. It has taken advantage of its culturally mixed catchment area - its pupils speak a total of 50 languages - to promote linguistic skills at school.

The school gets extra funding from the education department in return for finding £50,000 of private sponsorship. But Mr Thompson ends up doing more bidding for government money than teaching. "There are too many people like me in schools," he said.

Evidence of the "schizophrenia" can be seen in the Government's fixation on targets. How can schools relax and be bold and innovative when they have to reach so many goals, the teachers ask.

Mrs Griffin dismisses the idea that year-on-year improvements in exam results can be produced like rabbits from a hat.

The school has improved its performance. When she arrived, only about 20 per cent of the pupils obtained at least five A* to C-grade GCSE passes. In 1997, 50 per cent did. Now the figure is 63.

Mrs Griffin has another worry over Labour's policies - "cliff-edge financing". Greenford, in the London Borough of Ealing, receives money from the Excellence in Cities programme. Schools just down the road do not.

The extra finance has let her employ learning mentors - classroom assistants who can help struggling pupils and take a bit of weight off the teachers' shoulders.

So ask teachers at the school if they want a change of government and the answer is a clear "no".

"We need a moratorium on initiatives," said Mr Thompson. "What I'm not saying is I want them out. I want them to get in again - or those from the Liberal Democrats - but I want some clearer planning for the future."

"There is nothing wrong with their intentions and their ambitions," said Mrs Griffin. "If we can just get rid of some of the schizophrenia in putting some of these things into practice."