Standards are rising - but bring in your own paints

In the second part of a major 'IoS' series monitoring the Government's promises to deliver on public services, Jo Dillon puts Labour's performance in Britain's schools under the spotlight
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Indy Politics

Education, education, education. Since Tony Blair repeated his top political priority, his ministers in the Department for Education and Skills have been both prominent and precarious. In the country's 24,000 schools, they have met opposition over plans to increase already extensive testing. There have been rows over standards, a scandal over A-level marking. And even with an annual budget of £45bn, there is the ongoing problem of funding improvements, further complicated in recent weeks by ministers' claims that money earmarked for education was not being passed on to schools by local authorities. In higher education,plans to introduce top-up fees could force students – or their parents – to pay tens of thousands of pounds for a degree.

Education, education, education. Since Tony Blair repeated his top political priority, his ministers in the Department for Education and Skills have been both prominent and precarious. In the country's 24,000 schools, they have met opposition over plans to increase already extensive testing. There have been rows over standards, a scandal over A-level marking. And even with an annual budget of £45bn, there is the ongoing problem of funding improvements, further complicated in recent weeks by ministers' claims that money earmarked for education was not being passed on to schools by local authorities. In higher education,plans to introduce top-up fees could force students – or their parents – to pay tens of thousands of pounds for a degree.

What were the problems?

Education, the new Government claimed in 1997, had been grossly underfunded, its budget declining as a proportion of national wealth. Half of all 11-year-olds failed to meet basic standards in English and maths. Huge classes were being taught in crumbling buildings. Thousands of children were leaving school at 16 with no qualifications, and Britain had proportionately fewer 17- and 18-year-olds in full-time education than any other industrialised nation. Universities complained they were being starved of resources.

What did New Labour promise?

The Labour Party's 2001 manifesto promised to raise funding from 5 per cent of GDP to 5.3 per cent by 2004, to recruit an extra 10,000 teachers, and to give free nursery places to every three-year-old in the long-term. There would be an 85 per cent success rate for 11-year-olds in maths and English tests, faith schools where parents requested them, and no top-up fees for university students.

What have they done so far?

Funding has increased as promised and will rise to 5.6 per cent of GDP in 2005/06; 25,000 more teachers and 89,000 more support staff have been hired. Original targets in tests for 11-year-olds have not yet been met, but failure rates have gone down from 40 per cent in 1997 to 25 per cent today. Fewer children are leaving school with no GCSEs; £5bn has been put into a buildings programme. Top-up fees are still being debated.

What do they need to do next?

Extra funding is failing to make improvements as quickly as voters hoped: extra effort is needed to ensure the money is going where it's needed. The teaching profession needs to be made more attractive to potential recruits put off by bureaucracy and low pay and prestige. The ongoing political wrangling over university funding, still a shambles, needs to be resolved.

The Minister

Almost a year after telling teachers in his first public pronouncement as schools standards minister that "I am here today because of state education," David Miliband still has a lot to prove. Not to those who, almost certainly to his embarrassment, insist he has "a brain the size of a planet" or that his destiny is to become "the next Prime Minister but one". But to head teachers – angry that the money promised for education isn't enough to improve the lot of teachers (still struggling with too much paperwork and not enough support), parents (afraid that their children are being short-changed) and pupils (trying their best, sometimes in very difficult circumstances).

When we meet in his office at the Department for Education and Skills, Mr Miliband is in the middle of sorting out the latest manifestation of all that: the dispute with local authorities over the "missing millions", just over £500m that should have reached schools but hasn't.

The minister is careful not to pre-empt the outcome of the talks he and his boss, Charles Clarke, are having with the local authorities and schools. And as head teachers threaten a four-day week or the sacking of staff to cope with this year's budget shortfall, Mr Miliband pleads with schools that are "feeling the pinch" to be patient.

"Our message is that we know there's uncertainty, but don't make precipitate decisions because there is more money coming."

Even in this "unique year", which has seen unusually significant changes to pensions, national insurance and salaries, he is adamant there is "national headroom" – to be precise, a £2.7bn increase in funding for schools which need £2.4bn. But, he says: "We need it to find its way to the front line. That's what we are engaged in morning, noon and night."

This latest battle – and there will be others, given the education team's dubious honour as the guardians of New Labour's top political priority – does not seem to dampen Mr Miliband's optimism, which is boosted by the now undisputed advances in primary education since 1997, particularly in numeracy and literacy.

In the four decades before New Labour came to office, only half of primary school pupils attained the basic standards needed for the transition to secondary education; that figure is now 75 per cent. Last month an international study put Britain's 10-year-olds at number three in the world league table for reading skills.

Yet there is still hostility from teaching unions and some parents about the Government's measured approach to raising standards.

"The much maligned targets have raised expectations and set standards," he says. "People think you are a clipboard-carrying nerd who wants to put ticks in boxes. It's not so I can meet my targets, it really matters."

"If you read, write and count well at 11, it makes a real difference. Of the 11-year-olds who reach level four, 70 per cent go on to get five good GCSEs."

But now the same vigour needs to be put into secondary eucation – a trickier task. The good news is 25,000 more teachers, many of them better paid, 89,000 more support staff (lab technicians, music specialists, second-language speakers), enormous increases in the school buildings programme (the budget for which will reach £5bn by 2006) and a 10 per cent rise in the number of pupils getting five good GCSEs or more.

Mr Miliband is incensed by those who each year play down the success of GCSE students. But with the 2002 figure for five good passes or more standing at only 52 per cent of pupils, clearly there is more to be done. It is to this task, with as passionate a devotion to reform as you would expect from the former head of No 10's policy unit and author of Labour's two election-winning manifestos, that Mr Miliband now sets himself.

He justifies reform with his vision of a modern school: state-of-the-art buildings, a range of staff beyond the traditional "teachers and a caretaker", up-to-the-minute facilities, links to other schools willing to share expertise and equipment, tie-ins with community, businesses and universities, schools in which parents, pupils and staff have a stake and educational opportunity is targeted at areas with high levels of disadvantage. He defends specialist schools, sweeping aside criticism that they are divisive with the neat soundbite, "excellence not elitism".

And Mr Miliband is a champion of the development of City Academies – new-build schools, open to all, in the heart of struggling inner-city areas. One such project, he says pulling out an impressive-looking glossy leaflet, is the Mossbourne Community Academy, due to open in September 2004 on the site of the old Hackney Downs School in east London.

The idea behind it is meant to inspire. It is the transformation of a sink comprehensive into a "centre of excellence". "If that doesn't inspire you, then ..." The minister doesn't finish that sentence. It just should.

The school

Walton High needs a new physics lab, but unless it can raise £50,000, pupils will have to make do

Bruce Fletcher was 16 when he sat at his bench in the physics lab and branded it with a hot, triangular pipe. Twenty-three years later, now a deputy head teacher at the school where he was once a pupil, he runs his finger around the scorch mark.

"When I walked back in here to do my first lesson I was right back to 1980. It was like a time warp," he said.

It would cost around £50,000 to bring the old physics lab at Walton High School, Stafford, into line with its neighbours', which are airy, light, and modern. But every year the lab is measured against other priorities. And every year it loses out. The solution, because there isn't enough money in the £4m school budget this year either, is to become a specialist school.

An application has been put in. It's been successful. The school meets all the educational standards in the specialist school criteria, it has already partnered with nearby schools with different strengths and facilities, and a detailed and imaginative development plan has been put together. But Walton High needs to raise private sector money – coincidentally £50,000 – to be eligible for specialist school status.

Local firms have done their best: £50 here, £100 there. But the biggest employer in the town, Alston (formerly GEC), has just had to lay off staff.

And so Walton High School waits and hopes, and its head teacher, Sue Kirkham, carries out her annual penny-pinching in an attempt to make ends meet. "You have always assumed you would be struggling with the budget but we really did believe there would be an improvement this year, so it is very upsetting it's not happening," she says.

Walton High School, a state school with 1,400 pupils between 11 and 18, is not one of those said to have been starved of government cash by the local authority in the so-called "missing millions" row. "They have given us 106 per cent," Mrs Kirkham says. The problem is more fundamental. There isn't enough money.

This is a school that's doing well. Its A- and AS-levels are very good and 75 per cent of GCSE students are getting A-C grades. And yet, in the school classrooms – most with a philosophical message pinned up on the door – pupils still have to share basic textbooks. Progress on building work has been patchy.

A new music block has been built opposite the school's front entrance, with fingerposts pointing to tempting world destinations. Less salubrious is what the head teacher calls "hut city" and the English department calls home. It is a collection of pre-fabricated classrooms, "temporary" even though some of them are 20 years old.

Inside, the school feels relatively modern and bright, though the problems of everyday maintenance, which must also come out of the budget, are obvious – only one of the two hand-dryers in the ladies' works, and one of the toilets needs a new seat.

And yet the essentials are there. The pupils are smart, and polite: the place is studiously quiet – and, on our visit, smelled of freshly-baked muffins. There is a sense of contentment. But there are hitches in the art department: "You sometimes run out of equipment you need and you have to go to the shops and buy it yourself," says Hollie Caley, 17.

The students, sitting in their sixth-form centre – a recreation area that offers privacy and a bit of independence for the older pupils (if not much comfort) – are full of praise for the school and its teachers, and the opportunity to study new subjects, such as law, that weren't available a few years ago.

The changes, and improved results at GCSE, have made this sixth form a bumper year. Mrs Kirkham knows she has her staff to thank for this. "But you do feel sometimes the staff have to make up with their own time and commitment for the shortcomings of the financial system."

The teacher

Education, education, education can only be bought with money, money, money. That's the feeling of head teacher Sue Kirkham. Backed by the staff of Walton High, she is adamant that the desire of teachers and head teachers is no less fierce than that of the Government to create a vibrant, 21st-century education system that helps every child achieve his or her full potential. "The politicians make it sound as if things are or were terrible and we're going to have a revolution. But many, many schools have been working towards these sorts of changes. The reason you become a head teacher is because you do want to make a difference to children's lives," she said. "We have got the ideas, the willingness – it's the funding and the ability to recruit excellent staff that we need." Mrs Kirkham has found the pool of talented teachers applying for jobs at her school is smaller than it used to be, despite recent pay increases. And Staffordshire County Council – one of the authorities that did pass on all of the allocated government funding to its schools – is one of the worst funded in the country. Because of increased pressure on budgets this year from teacher pay rises, changes to pensions and increased national insurance contributions, already stretched finances are going to put the £4m budget under further strain. Put simply, that means cuts.

The pupil

Sixteen-year-old Jenny Law and her friends are stuck into their AS-level revision. They're generally impressed with Walton High School, its teaching staff and the choices and facilities available to them. As a PE student, though, Jenny would love the money that's gone into other facilities to be forthcoming for sport, too. "We've got a swimming pool but we don't have a sports hall," she says. "We just have a little gym. So we can play little games but we need a full-length basketball court." She'd also welcome more textbooks for the relatively new subject, food technology. The teaching is good, she says, but "we could do with a revision guide to back that up". At the moment the students are working out of GCSE revision guides.

Jenny feels she is getting the best teaching available. Though in the lower years pupils became used to temporary or student teachers, she said that doesn't happen now. Though some courses are not available on site at Walton High, Jenny and her classmates use the Chetwynd Centre in town to do more unusual subjects, or else play host to pupils from other schools. "It's good because you get to meet other people from different schools," she says. What Jenny would like to see is improved facilities in some areas, more textbooks – oh, and the end of this year's exams.

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