New Labour, same labours

Headteachers are finding that life has changed little from the bad old Tory days.
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The Independent Online
School headship was tough enough under the Conservatives, but, perversely, it is proving even more difficult under a Labour government, according to the analysis offered by a book that has been published this week.

The Third Way in education avoids the extremes to which John Major's government appeared to be heading, but it is about far more than stretching pupils and raising standards. It cannot disguise the underlying continuity between New Labour and the Thatcher and Major governments.

The period from 1979 to 1997 was a difficult one for state schools. Their failings were widely publicised and their successes belittled. The Conservative government displayed remarkably little confidence in the system which it was statutorily obliged to administer. Not only was there a lack of commitment towards state schools, where the children of few government ministers were educated, but there was also a lack of trust in state school teachers.

Open enrolment, parental preference and performance tables acted as the drivers of a market-based system which left headteachers with little alternative but to compete with neighbouring schools for pupils. The job of the head was increasingly at risk, particularly in areas of social deprivation.

Despite the lack of trust and commitment, state schools were extremely successful through this period. The proportion of pupils gaining at least five good grades at age 16 nearly doubled and the proportion of 18 year olds passing two A-levels doubled.

The early abolition by the new Labour Government of both nursery vouchers and the assisted places scheme was widely welcomed by a state school system which appeared to be facing dismemberment in the event of a Conservative victory. But within weeks the Education Minister, Stephen Byers, "named and shamed" the 18 "worst-performing schools".

This represented a clear sign that the balance of pressure and support, which Tony Blair in opposition had promised to correct, would still be weighted towards pressure. This was hard on schools serving disadvantaged communities, where the problems are much wider than education and the solutions are so much more difficult to put into practice.

On funding, the Labour Government has put greater resources into education, but the benefits have yet to be felt in many schools and the inherent unfairness of the funding distribution system has still to be addressed.

On curriculum, the Government has concentrated its efforts on primary schools and has not pursued its stated intention to develop a coherent post-14 qualifications structure.

Its post-16 measures have been as tentative as the Dearing proposals on which they are based, and its adherence to the "gold standard" of A- levels has been just as great as that of the Conservative administration.

Although welcome as a first step, the recent measures relate insufficiently to the contexts of comprehensive education and lifelong learning. On inspection, the Ofsted system has changed little and, in reappointing Chris Woodhead as chief inspector the Government confirmed it is more concerned about editorials in right-wing newspapers than establishing a quality assurance system for schools in which teachers have confidence.

On school structures, policies are less extreme now than before 1997, but again they are based on continuity rather than radical change. "Choice and diversity" is as much the motto of the Labour Government as it was of the Conservatives. On teacher supply, the "golden hello" appears to be successful and needs to be extended, but the problem of teacher supply will be solved only when young people with the best brains and most attractive personalities want to enter teaching in large numbers.

While teachers are poorly paid, their work is over-regulated by central agencies and their best efforts are publicly criticised, the country will not have the teaching force it needs.

Much hangs on the outcome of the Green Paper. If the Government can get off the hook of annual appraisal linked to pay and concentrate on establishing a new career structure which rewards the best teachers very well, then the prospect opens of a new dawn for the education service.

This is a Government in a hurry on educational reform. The continuing problems may be urgent, but governments usually make mistakes when they try to legislate on too many issues at once.

There are two ways in which a large number of reforms can be institutionalised in schools effectively. Either the teachers can be persuaded of the wisdom of the policies then trusted to implement them or the Government can exercise greater central control and exert pressure to ensure the policies are carried out.

It seems the present Government, like its predecessor, has chosen the second course of action.

The writer is the General Secretary of the Secondary Heads Association

`State Schools: New Labour and the Conservative Legacy' is edited by Clyde Chitty and John Dunford (Woburn Press, pounds 16.50)