David Miliband: Where I take issue with your education audit

Your editorial's 'D' for achievement comes from the Anne Robinson school of assessment
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The Independent Online

As your Audit of Education, published on Monday and Tuesday, demonstrates, it would be absurd to pretend everything has turned rosy since 1997. To govern is to choose, and the key choices made by the Government - about priorities, about investment, about accountability - have made possible the gains delivered by dedicated staff in our schools. But we don't ignore the mistakes; we try and learn from them.

As your Audit of Education, published on Monday and Tuesday, demonstrates, it would be absurd to pretend everything has turned rosy since 1997. To govern is to choose, and the key choices made by the Government - about priorities, about investment, about accountability - have made possible the gains delivered by dedicated staff in our schools. But we don't ignore the mistakes; we try and learn from them.

For the top quartile of the income distribution, England has the best results in the world, as shown in a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-opeartion and Development in 2000. But our historic problem has been the education of the whole population, not just an élite. This is the legacy the Government is trying to tackle. I am proud that we have halved the number of failing schools; turning them into thriving institutions is the challenge now.

For 40 years, until the mid-1990s, standards of achievement by pupils leaving primary schools had hardly changed. I am glad that The Independent's report paid tribute to nursery and primary staff, as well as to the Government, for the investment and reform that has delivered major improvements in achievement, with the greatest improvement in schools with the highest numbers of poor children.

We know this progress because of national tests at 11. They set consistent, independent, national benchmarks of achievement. They guard against poverty of aspiration. The introduction of measures of pupil progress into school performance tables has given parents a fuller picture on the performance of their child's school. We cannot return to a world where ministers, officials and probably teachers know the performance of schools, but the public does not.

The secondary sector is a tougher nut to crack, but your editorial's "D" for achievement comes from the Anne Robinson school of assessment. Worse, it is an unfair slight on thousands of schools. Here are the facts.

Last year saw the highest ever test results for 14-year-olds, with 68 per cent reaching the expected level in science, 69 per cent in English and 71 per cent in maths - 60,000 more pupils than in 1997. In GCSEs, nationally, there has been steady upward progress in the numbers gaining five or more passes at grades A* to C, rising by an average of 1 percentage point each year. Provisional GCSE results in Excellence in Cities schools, those facing some of the toughest education challenges in the country, have improved at almost double this rate.

But, like The Independent, we are not satisfied. Our 10-year-olds have the third highest levels of reading in the world, yet by the age of 17 we have the fourth highest drop-out rate of any country. This is what we have to change. Nearly half of secondary schools now have specialist status and the centre of curricular excellence that goes with it - and their performance at GCSE, more than 7 per cent above the average for non-specialist schools, shows that reform delivers results. Fourteen hundred secondary schools are receiving intensive support in school leadership - the key to success.

Structural innovation is being introduced by academies, bringing new providers and new ideas into the school system. Truancy rates are falling, and 17,000 of the most disruptive students are now being given special help - good for them and essential for other pupils who hate the disruption to their studies.

And in a key development for the future we are making it possible for students to combine academic and vocational education to suit their individual abilities and interests.

Education is a people business and it is the recruitment, retention and deployment of staff that is the key to its success. There are 25,000 more teachers than in 1997. More than 122,000 teaching assistants are now supporting them in the classroom - twice as many as in 1997. And the numbers starting teacher training courses this year has seen a fourth successive annual rise.

These staff are working in new ways. Our school workforce reform is reducing unnecessary burdens on teachers, and increasing the personal attention for pupils. Combined with massive investment in computer technology - 99 per cent of schools are now online - the content and conduct of lessons is more interesting and effective.

Education has three great functions in a civilised society: to pass on the best of knowledge and culture from one generation to another; to broaden horizons where they are stunted by disadvantage; and to help students develop skills that will last them for life. These are the tests for the education system, and for the Government.

When the A-level results were published last August, The Independent rightly denounced the national obsession with talking down the achievements of our young people. Your leading article on Monday seems to have caught a strain of this disease.

There is a substantial way to go before we can deliver the high-quality, high-equity education that we seek, but the vision of learning personalised to the needs, interests and aptitudes of every pupil is right, and over the next couple of years, pupils, teachers and schools will have the tools to show what they can do. I look forward to your next report - this is a journey for all of us.

The writer is the School Standards Minister

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