David Cameron: How to make a real difference in our schools

Let's be clear: the A-level is a source of strength for our education system, not weakness
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The Independent Online

Of course, for those of us who want the A-level to survive - and I am a passionate fan - there are steps we must take to secure its long-term future, such as publishing marks as well as grades. But let's be clear: the A-level is a source of strength in our education system, not weakness.

Elsewhere, the picture is still pretty gloomy - and you don't have to take my word for it. The story seeped out earlier this week from the elusive prime ministerial yacht that Mr. Blair is "deeply frustrated" by the lack of progress in delivering standards and parental choice, and is demanding officials come up with proposals to accelerate the pace of change. A White Paper is now expected in the autumn.

Heads and teachers will be depressed to read about another barrage of legislation, given that we have already had three manifestos, nine Acts of Parliament, five Green Papers, three White Papers and two strategy documents dealing with education. But the Prime Minister is right to be disappointed that real and lasting change has failed to follow these previous reforms. If he wants genuinely effective measures, here are the eight elements he will have to include:

1. Rigour. We should not accept a system where poor standards are tolerated and failing schools are propped up. It was many years ago that Blair pledged, as part of his "education, education education" mantra, that bad teachers would be sacked, and failing schools and LEAs taken over, but precious little has happened. The General Teaching Council has struck off only 14 bad teachers after almost seven years of operation.

2. Autonomy. Schools must be places where children go to work and learn, not dumping grounds for children regardless of how they behave. This means giving heads and governors the final say on expulsions, without being overruled by appeals panels. It means allowing them to own their own buildings and employ their own staff, and to be freed from the culture of targets and central control. One of the most striking things in yesterday's exam results is that those schools which have the most autonomy - city academies, foundation schools and the independent sector - record the best results.

3. Freedom to manage. Instead of being subject to a stream of initiatives and funding streams from the various different agencies and public bodies, heads and governors should be able to determine their own priorities, including on admissions.

4. Literacy. This must be tackled as an urgent priority. If you can't read, you can't learn, and all further opportunities are closed. Instead of continued hand-wringing from the Government, we need decisive action. Studies show synthetic phonics is the best method of teaching reading, and we shouldn't need another review to tell us what needs to be done.

5. Diversity. Labour have flirted with initiatives such as specialist schools, foundation schools and city academies, but have not given any the genuine freedom to innovate. There is a danger that without such freedom, academies will merely replace existing sink schools with failing schools in Norman Foster buildings. Instead of business merely adding funding, we should access their expertise over design, construction and management.

6. Special needs. We should ensure that children with special educational needs are given access to the most appropriate form of education. The tide should turn away from the inclusion-at-all-costs agenda, as even its previous advocates now accept. Inappropriate placing of children in mainstream schools damages not only their own education but that of others.

7. Removing barriers between public and private. We should break down the Berlin Wall between the private and state sectors in education. Labour ended the assisted places scheme, which gave a ladder of opportunity to so many, and put nothing in its place.

8. The amoeba. Finally, Mr. Blair must have the courage to tackle what I have previously called "the amoeba" - the mixture of wooliness and resistance to rigour that seems to smother large parts of the educational establishment. Where change is promoted by this establishment - the proposed abolition of the A-level being a case in point - it is all too often an attack on the parts of the system where excellence and rigour are still encouraged.

If the new White Paper includes these measures, it will really make a difference. If not, it will just be another of Mr. Blair's gimmicks. We must hope his latest stance proves to be a lasting commitment rather than a brief holiday romance.

The writer is shadow Education Secretary