Under the spotlight: why Labour's pledges to drive up standards get a D for delivery

Education Audit: 'Education, education, education' was Tony Blair's mantra for his Government. Richard Garner scrutinises the policies since 1997 and delivers his verdict on them
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The Independent Online

MAY 1997: Labour's first move - confirmed within two days of taking office - was to introduce legislation abolishing the Assisted Places Scheme - which offered means-tested subsidies to children to attend private schools.

MAY 1997: Labour's first move - confirmed within two days of taking office - was to introduce legislation abolishing the Assisted Places Scheme - which offered means-tested subsidies to children to attend private schools.

Result: The last pupils admitted under the scheme will leave private schools next summer.

Verdict: The pledge was carried out successfully and ended a scheme which research showed helped more middle-class parents than working-class parents.

Any indication that signalled a tough line by Labour towards independent schools was swiftly dispelled as ministers set up a "partnership" fund to offer subsidies to private schools to share facilities such as sports grounds with the state sector.

July: A new White Paper, Excellence in Schools, aimed to cut down the number of children leaving school with no qualifications. Measures included insisting no pupil left school at Easter, before sitting GCSE exams, on reaching 16.

Result: Numbers were cut from 50,000 to 32,600 - but went up again this year by nearly 1,000, with schools accused of concentrating on pupils likely to get five A* to C grade passes to boost their positions in league tables.

Verdict: Good start but damaging for Labour that figures are now rising again.

July: Further targets were also set for reducing truancy (about 50,000 pupils a day) and school exclusions (around 13,000) by a third by 2002.

Result: Progress towards exclusion targets led to teachers complaining that unruly children were being kept in the classroom - disrupting lessons for others. Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, also reported a decline in pupil behaviour - particularly among 11- to 14-year-olds.

In what was probably the biggest U-turn under David Blunkett, the Government announced the setting up of a network of pupil referral units - "sin bins" - where unruly pupils could be taught.

Despite new fines and prison sentences for parents of truants, truancy rates remained largely unchanged.

Verdict: A failure which exposed the flaw of relying on targets in too many areas. As one senior aide to Mr Blunkett put it: "How can you legislate in 1999 for how many children are going to misbehave in 2002?"

August: A-level results showed the pass rate was 87.1 per cent. The percentage of scripts awarded A grades was 16 per cent.

Result: The pass rate has continued to rise and is now 95.1 per cent - while the percentage of A-grade passes is now 21.6 per cent.

Verdict: Standards have improved in both A-levels and GCSEs and independent studies have failed to prove that either exam is getting easier.

But the rate of progress is slowing. This year, the percentage of children getting five A* to C grades at GCSE increased from 51.2 per cent to 52.6 per cent. In past years, it had risen by more than 2 percentage points.

January 1998: Plans for education action zones were announced, with businesses being encouraged to have a say in the running of schools, mainly in the inner cities. The zones were designed to pioneer innovative ideas for delivering the curriculum.

Result: The plans were abandoned. Some heads claimed the competitive culture of league tables made it difficult for schools to work together in action zones. Zones are being replaced by the Excellence in Cities initiative, which offers extra cash to individual schools in disadvantaged circumstances and targets the money at specific programmes - such as educating gifted and talented children.

Verdict: A failure. Schools in the zones failed to pioneer new ways of working or develop the curriculum. The zones simply became a vehicle for getting extra cash into the inner cities.

February: The Government launched a drive to set up more specialist schools with a pledge to establish 450 by 2002.

Result: The programme has gradually increased in size and more than 1,000 schools now specialise. The target is 1,500 by 2006 - one ministers are likely to reach. Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, has also announced that every school should be able to bid for specialist status.

Verdict: An experiment still worth keeping an eye on. The widening of the programme has helped to allay fears that the scheme would introduce a two-tier education system. The specialist schools have so far improved their exam results at a faster rate than "bog-standard" comprehensives.

October: Plans for means-tested education maintenance allowances of £30 a week to help 16-year-olds stay on at school or college were disclosed.

Result: The scheme was given a pilot test and then introduced across the country.

Verdict: It has helped persuade youngsters - many seeking vocational qualifications - to stay in full-time education.

December: Plans to give teachers merit rises of £2,000 if they passed competency tests were announced. The pay ceiling for a classroom teacher was to be lifted to £40,000 a year.

Result: Most teachers passed the test and moved on to a new, higher pay scale. However, the scheme proved too costly and partly contributed to this summer's school budget crisis which saw hundreds of teachers being sacked.

Verdict: A good scheme hoist on its own spin. It was billed as a pay bonanza for the classroom teacher. However, when it became too costly, attempts were made to limit the number of teachers who received the rises. It should have been introduced as a more stringent merit pay scheme at the start.

March 2000: Schools that failed to enable 15 per cent of pupils to achieve at least five A* to C grade passes in three consecutive years were told they faced closure.

Result: A week later it was admitted by Professor Michael Barber, then the head of standards at the Department for Education, that the schools could stay open because of the furore the announcement created. But of an original 70 schools on the list only 23 were still on the list last year.

Verdict: The policy was badly handled - although standards in most of the schools have improved in the past three years. It has raised some questions about whether heads concentrated too much on the pupils likely to get five A* to C grade passes at the expense of weaker pupils.

September: The Government's new "Curriculum 2000" was introduced with new AS-levels at the end of the first year of the sixth-form followed by A2 (old A-levels) at the end of the second.

Result: Chaos ensued in 2002 - the first year pupils actually sat A2s - with the Government eventually blamed for failing to pilot the A2s and thus confusing the exam boards over the marking standards for the new exams. Around 2,000 students had their results upgraded as a result of the fiasco.

Verdict: Confidence in the examination system was badly dented by the crisis in 2002. However, the introduction of the AS-level has increased the breadth of sixth-form studies and Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, is now taking a more measured look at exam reform - with a view to introducing a baccalaureate-style system.

May 2001: Labour declared in its election manifesto that it would employ 10,000 more teachers and 50,000 more classroom assistants during the lifetime of the next parliament.

Result: The Government has met these targets well ahead of schedule. However, independent analysts, such as Professor Alan Smithers, from Liverpool University, are worried the school funding crisis will reduce the number of teachers employed by the time of the next election.

Verdict: A promising start which could be blown off course by the second major disaster of Labour's second term in education, the funding crisis. Ministers did not foresee the effect of increased national insurance and pensions contributions plus the cost of performance-related pay rises on schools.

September: A White Paper called for all proposals for new schools to be advertised so that private companies could bid to run them. A network of City Academies was to be established to replace failing inner-city schools. They were to be run by private sponsors.

Result: The first Academies are now opening.

Verdict: The jury is still out.

January 2002: A shake-up to the curriculum allowed pupils to drop modern foreign languages at 14. Fourteen-year-olds were also to be allowed to spend up to two days a week at college or on work experience instead of at school.

Result: Many schools jumped the gun over the proposals and abandoned languages before the plan came into effect.

Verdict: The proposal on language teaching should be reversed, as the UK Ambassadors of Germany, Spain and France told The Independent. But the diversity of provision allowing bored 14-year-olds to go to college is rekindling interest in education for some young people.

September 2003: New teachers' contracts were introduced. They removed administrative tasks from teachers, introducing limits on covering for absent colleagues and guaranteeing 10 per cent marking and preparation time away from the classroom.

Result: Introduction of the contracts is said to be patchy because of the funding crisis.

Verdict: If the funding crisis is solved next year, teachers - and therefore pupils - will benefit. But once again, the jury is still out as to whether school kitties have enough cash to implement the changes.

Conclusion: Labour's impatience to deliver reforms has marred its delivery and caused important policy initiatives to be bungled - witness the ill-thought-out targets on truancy and exclusions, the A-level fiasco and the setting up of education action zones. The hyping of the comprehensive spending review settlement for education in 2002 has intensified the problems over school budgets. It was billed as a record bonanza for schools - yet no one in government ever made it clear that increases in pensions and national insurance contributions coupled with merit rises for teachers would whittle away most of the cash.

However, despite these obvious faults, no one could deny that Labour has achieved improvements in secondary schools. The most noticeable are in the improvements to school buildings - where £4bn is being spent on new schools and repairs to old ones. In the inner cities, too, far more help is being given to disadvantaged pupils - particularly by giving them learning mentors to help them keep up in class - with the result that GCSE and A-level pass rates are rising faster in the inner cities.

Labour deserves an A for effort but only a D for delivery. If many of the policies had been better thought through, the damaging chaos that followed would have been avoided, standards would probably have risen at a faster rate and teachers would not have been so stressed by their workloads.