A blueprint for schools under Labour

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The Independent Online
The best news about education is that it is now truly news. Politicians can no longer doubt there are votes in it. Indeed, almost for the first time, education may survive as a major issue into the election campaign.

There is a massive amount to be done and the key issue must be to improve education arrangements for low achievers and disadvantaged areas. This is where my hopes would be with Labour. It is my firm view that the next government must focus on four crisis priorities - nursery provision, primary schools, the teaching profession and the secondary system.

There is no doubt that success throughout education and indeed beyond depends critically on the early years in nursery school. This is where the groundwork for literacy and numeracy is laid, where interest in many subjects can be stimulated, and - hopefully - the seeds for actually enjoying school sown.

Hence the high priority given by the National Commission on Education - and many others - to nursery education for all three- and four-year- olds. This was backed by the Prime Minister. But then officials got to work, aiming at something less ambitious. So, two and a half years after the Prime Minister's endorsement, all we have is a small pilot experiment, limited to four-year-olds and based on highly controversial voucher finance. A pathetic response to a national need.

I would expect a Labour government to give this true priority. Provision should cover three- as well as four-year-olds, local authorities being obliged to provide the places. A phased programme should start in deprived areas. Standards must be high, requiring specially trained and qualified teachers. Finance should come from public funds and the voucher system should be scrapped. I hope for universal provision within the lifetime of the next government.

Parallel with this goes priority for our 19,000 primary schools. Many of them are officially judged inadequate, a shameful comment on the Government and local authorities. We will need an audit of primary schools, followed by an emergency programme to improve buildings, playgrounds, libraries and equipment. Again the start should be in inner-city, deprived areas.

Class sizes must be brought down. The National Commission proposed that no primary school pupils should be in classes over 30 or, where conditions are particularly difficult, over 20. This is a major challenge, with at present over a million children in classes of more than 30 and class sizes increasing. (Some official spokesmen have questioned the facts. This is disingenuous. The evidence for smaller classes is overwhelming, especially for the first two primary years). Schemes are also needed to attract good teachers into primary schools, teachers knowledgeable in relevant subjects, as well as in the basics of English and mathematics. To attract first-class heads is the most important of all.

In all this lies the solution for illiteracy and innumeracy. We cannot tolerate 15 per cent of children leaving primary schools with limited literacy and 20 per cent with limited numeracy.

Then there is the priority for improvements in the teaching profession. No profession can expect to retain high motivation, if it is constantly run down. We need a more positive tone in the way politicians, officials and the media "talk" about teachers. A less provocative stance from the school inspectors would also do wonders. Of course inadequate teachers cannot be tolerated. But as a profession they deserve the highest respect. I look to the incoming government to set the tone and to implement the Commission's proposal to establish a General Teaching Council. This is vital to give teachers a proper professional ethos,

Initial teacher training is crucial, deserving increased support, not least in restoring the role of university education departments, so wrongly marginalised in recent years. Re-training on the job is a priority, constant bureaucratic intervention needs to be reduced, support staff strengthened and pay reviewed: in 1974, teachers' salaries were 37 per cent above average non-manual earnings, now they are 1 per cent below. Improved arrangements for selecting and training heads - whose role is totally crucial - need to be developed.

As regards curricula, schools deserve a period of stability, though there is always room for marginal improvements. At primary level the mathematics curriculum needs reform along the lines practised on the Continent, and I also hope that space can be found for a foreign language, so easily learnt in early years.

At secondary level, I hope the arts will find their way back as compulsory after 14, as to save us from producing yet more philistine generations. I hope that a Labour government will replace A-levels with a truly broad and flexible examination. A-levels are no longer appropriate either as school assessments, nor for judging entrants to higher education or the changing work scene.

I hope that the next government will allow peace to break out in the debate on teaching methods, now rather ludicrously polarised between those who favour whole-class, talk-and-chalk methods,and those preferring the often derided "progressive" methods. In truth, there is a range of methods which can exist side by side.

As for the secondary system, it should be developed on comprehensive schools at their best. There are many excellent comprehensives, offering opportunities to a wide range of children, not least under-achievers. They can be diverse, with perhaps increasing specialisation, and a whole range of teaching methods, streaming and setting, but not, in my view, selection. The secret to comprehensive success is that they can attract a true mix of pupils, mixed in ability, background and motivation. I hope that within, say, five years of the next government, many, perhaps most, of the inadequate comprehensives will be turned into attractive schools. This will need determination and resources. But it must be done if all children are to have a fair chance.

I would not engage in the uphill struggle of shutting down grammar and grant-maintained schools. Rather I hope that they will gradually but deliberately be transformed into first-class comprehensives.

There remains the issue of independent schools. In one sense they are a minor problem, since they account for only eight per cent of children, but this is a considerable increase on the 5 per cent of a few years ago, and the figure is already 10 per cent in London. They remain highly privileged, both in what they offer and where they lead. I would look to a Labour government to take a number of steps to integrate them closely with the state system. The assisted places scheme should go, as should privileged charitable status (unless it is extended to state schools). National curriculum and qualification arrangements should apply to them as to all schools. Above all, ways should be found to extend their facilities to neighbouring state schools. By this l don't just mean swimming pools or chemistry labs. I mean that, wherever practicable, there should be shared teaching arrangements for children from independent and neighbouring state schools. And I would look to universities, and above all to Oxbridge, to increase the intake of able applicants from state schools.

I look to the next government for an over-arching priority: to improve the lot of children who under-achieve or suffer low teacher and parent expectations, and to improve schools disadvantaged in facilities and conditions. Spending on education is an investment on which economic growth depends, and on which, in turn, what we can spend from public funds depend. The new government must accept this point, and put education truly at the top of its agenda.

Sir Claus Moser was organiser of the independent National Commission on Education.