Will Labour's plans pass the test?

Yesterday's White Paper was the first fruit of Tony Blair's election promise to raise school standards. Judith Judd looks at the momentous task facing Education Secretary David Blunkett
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After the rhetoric comes the action. Tony Blair's big idea, "education, education and education", yesterday started its journey towards realisation with the publication of a White Paper. The weekend hype is familiar. There will be zero tolerance of failure. There will be the biggest assault on low school standards since the Second World War. There will be reforms that close the educational gap between pupils in Britain and our overseas competitors. There will be targets and development plans for pretty well everyone and everything.

With the possible exception of the new educational buzz-word, "targets", we have heard it all before; repeatedly from the previous government, the Thatcher government and, perhaps most significantly, from Mr Blair's Labour predecessor Jim Callaghan who, more than two decades ago, started a Great Debate on educational standards. Mr Callaghan's crusade foundered in the face of opposition from a cosily entrenched educational establishment.

The Conservatives did make a start. The introduction of a national curriculum and testing were steps along the road to school improvement. Regular inspection concentrated minds, but much of the rest of the package worked against improving schools. Teachers, who were the key to better standards, felt ill-used and denigrated. The decision to unleash market forces in education polarised schools: while the middle classes manoeuvred their children into the posher comprehensives, the bottom 40 per cent were increasingly marooned in schools that were unpopular with both parents and teachers. League tables, which credited schools with the highest proportion of A- C grades, provided an incentive for teachers to neglect those expected to get only Es and Fs.

Even worse, the Conservatives became increasingly distracted by the politics of school organisation. The Major government was interested in persuading more schools to opt out, in boosting assisted places in private schools and, in its dying days, in bringing back grammar schools. Literacy and numeracy took a back seat.

The most important single feature of the White Paper is that it tries to end the national obsession with schools' pecking order and to focus attention where it matters: on the teacher in the classroom. Super-teachers will be rewarded for staying in the classroom, bad teachers will go more speedily than in the past, and all will be judged on whether they are meeting targets. The most deprived areas will become education action zones, with extra money to hire good teachers. The previous government was already preparing a national curriculum for teacher training which prescribed teaching methods. This one is taking it over and going further: schools will have to timetable a "literacy" and, probably, a "numeracy" hour each day.

All that makes sense. So, in many ways, does the interventionist style of government described in the proposals. Ministers want to get a firmer grip on the way schools spend money. There will be earmarked grants to reduce class sizes, to boost nursery education and to improve literacy and numeracy. The bulk of schools' money will still go into a general local authority pot, but the new arrangements must be an improvement on the days when councils siphoned off money destined for schools to build multi-million-pound civic buildings.

There will be tighter control, too, of how local authorities run schools. The Secretary of State for Education will take away powers from those that have consistently failed to raise standards, and will close failing schools himself if authorities fail to act. He will refuse money to councils that do not provide appropriate development plans or strict enough targets.

Ministers are in a hurry. They are grabbing new powers so that, unlike their predecessors, they will not be thwarted by ineffective local authorities. But the centralisation of power has its dangers. How many officials will be needed to scrutinise targets and development plans for school improvement, early years education and class-size reduction? Will the entire Department for Education drown in a morass of paperwork?

Most important, will Blunkett-approved teaching methods prove to be an effective way of raising standards? There are strong arguments for telling teachers about methods that work, but there is a fine line between giving them the tools they need and stifling their creativity. Impose too much detail, and you end up with bored teachers teaching even more bored children.

And compulsion, management gurus would argue, is not necessarily the best way to deliver home/school contracts or targets.

Even with his new powers, it is not clear what sanctions Mr Blunkett will be able to employ against schools or authorities that fail to meet their targets. At a seminar of educationists before the election, Mr Blair asked officials from Birmingham, which has pioneered target-setting: "And what happens if schools do not meet their targets?" Professor Tim Brighouse, chief education officer, had a swift reply: "Sack the chief education officer." It is not, Mr Blair knows, as simple as that. Like all legislation, the education Bill that follows the White Paper will deal with those schools and authorities that are failing badly rather than with the much greater number in the middle which could do better.

Other important questions remain unanswered. The emphasis on standards is welcome but the brief references to school organisation are inadequate: consultation papers on opting out and school admissions are promised. The previous government's market-forces philosophy created, according to the Audit Commission, "gridlock" in school admissions. Parents were unable to get their children into the schools of their choice because the many different types of schools have unco-ordinated admissions policies. As Mr Blair's sons head for the London Oratory (opted-out) and Harriet Harman's goes to St Olave's (grammar), it is politically tempting for the Government to play down opted-out schools, which control their own admissions. But the need for a planned admissions system is pressing. As any parent of a child at a sink school will tell you, structures matter.

Mr Blair has made education his priority. He will expect to be judged by his success in raising standards. Yet the Government's difficulty is that legislation, however interventionist, is not enough. What is needed is a change of culture. Schools, as Mr Blunkett has said, must have higher expectations of pupils and develop a "can-do" mentality. No school should be able to make its pupils' background an excuse for failure.

Mr Blunkett's leadership and his relationship with teachers will play a vital part in the change. His predecessors have usually come and gone with a dismissive glance over their shoulder on the way to a more interesting job - seven of them in 18 years of Conservative rule. Kenneth Baker, who moved to education from the Department for the Environment, said that it was "like moving from the manager's job at Arsenal to Charlton. You crossed the river and moved down two divisions." Mr Blunkett has made it clear that his outlook is different.

He has also shown that he has a different attitude to teachers. Previous attempts to reform education have failed either because the relationship between ministers and teachers was too cosy or because, in the case of the previous government, it was too hostile. Mr Blair and Mr Blunkett have adopted a new tack: they want to value teachers and challenge them at the same time. Their watchwords are "pressure" and "support". That balancing act, not target-setting or development plans, may hold the key to the success of the education revolution.