Education Viewpoint: That's enough stunts, let's have some strategies

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LEAGUE tables of local authorities' exam results demonstrate that standards in inner cities are too low. The bottom 30 local authorities are all inner-city areas. It is clearly ludicrous to blame individual councils. A national problem requires national solutions.

If we are serious about raising standards, a strategy for improving education in the inner cities is essential. We know already that unemployment, racial violence, drug dealing and the murder and crime associated with it, are burgeoning. Will the slide be allowed to continue?

As far as education is concerned, Margaret Thatcher's famous promise on election night 1987 to do something for our inner cities remains unredeemed. Instead, the Government's policy consists of a lethal mixture of market philosophy and cuts.

To this, the present Education Bill adds only one new ingredient. The Secretary of State will gain the power to send in retired headteachers to sort out failing schools. Only this week, the Office for Standards in Education, the new inspection authority, told nearly 130 schools that they are classed as 'causing concern'. Most are in inner- city areas, and a large proportion are in inner London. Presumably, they will be the first to be targeted for intervention. But the fatal flaw in this policy is that the intervention comes too late: after a school has failed. It amounts to a stunt, not a strategy.

Excellence in inner-city education is achievable. Research shows that some schools, some of the time, do a remarkable job. A sensible policy would be designed to help more schools achieve more, more of the time.

There should be no more argument about whether reform or investment are most needed. Both are essential, now, and for the next decade. Sustained real growth, at low but predictable levels, should be promised for at least five years and linked to the implementation of reform. The Government should direct investment where it is most needed. Budgets should be based on pupil need as well as numbers. That would unlock the potential of school-

based management, which works only when there is sufficient money in the system for schools to make real choices.

Young people need to spend more time in an educational environment. Nursery education should be universally available. After-school activities should offer young people an alternative to the numbing influence of television. More pupils should stay on after 16; at least the Government has understood that. Beyond 18, every youngster who makes it to university raises aspiration all round. Businesses should fund scholarships to universities.

Schools need to develop the idea of partnership. Standards rise when parents understand what their children should be learning and how they can help them. Teachers need to justify and explain, in jargon-free language, what they are doing and why. If parents are not convinced, it may be teachers who need to think again.

Partnership must be turned into hard targets. Governors, parents and staff should agree targets for progress in pupil achievement, attendance and plans for development. Equally, parents should be making commitments in relation to, for example, attendance at parents' evenings and involvement in homework. A school's success could then be measured not only by its exam results, but also by its ability to meet agreed targets. Crucially, everyone associated with the school would take responsibility for its success. Local authorities should provide a framework of support for self-managing schools, and encourage ideas for innovation.

Finally, inner-city teachers need a new deal. Successful teaching depends on high expectations and an ever-

present sense of idealism. The pressures on teachers in inner cities grind them down. They need opportunities for refreshment, such as exchanges abroad or with other kinds of schools, to remind them that excellence is possible. They need recognition, not vilification. Perhaps one day there will be billboards here like the one that appeared in an American school district: 'Greenfield thanks its teachers.'

There is plenty of quality in inner cities, but not enough. The Government can let the slide become a devastating, downward spiral simply by doing nothing. Or it can learn the lesson of the league tables, and put a national strategy for excellence in place.

The writer is head of the National Union of Teachers' education department. The views expressed are his own.