Leading article: Labour faces a tough exam in economics

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The Independent Online
Repeat after me. Back to basics. The three Rs. Whole-class teaching. Put your calculators away, you at the back. After three years in rehearsal, David Blunkett is now fluent in the language of educational traditionalism.

And the Government's first two months have seen an impressive rhetorical display. Within days of winning the election, Mr Blunkett had "named and shamed" 18 failing schools and sent in hit squads (quickly renamed "help squads" for the squeamish end of the market). He ordered junk food off school menus, announced a "blitz on truants", questioned whether under- eights should have calculators, and announced a crackdown on "trendy" teacher-training colleges.

But what of the substance? Yesterday, the Government announced some of the details of its teacher-training reforms. For a fuller judgement of the transition from saying to doing, we must wait for next month's White Paper on education standards. Meanwhile, it is obvious that the most important factor in determining standards is the quality of individual teachers, so the teacher-training reforms allow us to make an interim assessment.

Since he became Secretary of State for Education and Employment (in other words, Nearly Everything That Tony Blair Thinks Is Really Important), Mr Blunkett has acted quickly on the pledges in Labour's manifesto. In come smaller classes; out go vouchers and the assisted places scheme. The priority for education is not just page 1, line 1 of Mr Blair's "contract with the people", it also represents a substantial section of the manifesto, full of specific policies, contrary to the widespread perception that this was a bland and waffly document. But, as we have seen since the election, Labour's policies fall into two broad groups: exhortation and action. Of course, exhortation and rhetoric can be valuable, but action is better. This dichotomy is particularly marked in the field of teacher quality.

It is not enough for Mr Blunkett and Estelle Morris, his deceptively quiet-spoken junior minister, simply to urge teacher training colleges to return to traditional methods, or "tried and tested methods of teaching" as yesterday's announcement put it. There are specific and practical things which produce results, and it is not enough to repeat the mantra about the "spread of best practice". Best practice has to be codified and mechanisms put in place to ensure that all schools do it.

This is not a matter of one simple, over-arching teaching "method". The best teachers use a mix of whole-class (or "whole-class interactive" in Labour's jargon), group and individual teaching. All good teaching is "child-centred" in the sense that children have no chance of expressing their individuality if they are not literate and numerate. Yesterday, the Government moved sharply in the right direction, with a "vanguard" of 12 teacher training colleges adopting the new programme from this September, and the threat of withdrawal of funds hanging over colleges which do not like it.

That is the supply side of the mechanism for improving what actually happens in classrooms, but the demand side matters, too - not least because rewriting the curriculum for teacher training colleges will do nothing about existing teachers, too many of whom are simply not up to scratch. Headteachers and deputy heads have to demand best practice from their staff. They should have more power to hire and (especially) to fire, and Mr Blunkett is doing something about that.

But they also need to reward good teaching. The pay of heads and deputies should reflect performance, which is why the outcry over the idea of pounds 70,000 salaries for headteachers is misplaced. There should be more pounds 70,000 heads, and more primary heads paid more where they are good enough to merit the money. The whole system has to shift towards rewarding merit rather than length of service or "additional responsibilities".

One of the most worrying news items this week was the sharp fall in the number of applications for teacher training. But given that there is no question of raising significantly the pay of the teaching profession as a whole, the only way to attract enough good candidates is to persuade them that high ability will be recognised by high pay. It is an uncomfortable truth that pay differentials are probably too compressed, especially in primary schools.

This does bring us to the question of public spending. Labour's pledge is to "increase the share of national income spent on education as we decrease it on the bills of economic and social failure". Easier said than done. Given that education is an urgent priority now but that the benefits take a long time to come through, the logic of the Government's stance points in the opposite direction, towards cash up front for payback later.

We return - while acknowledging that it is too late to influence the content of next week's Budget - to our concern about Labour's public spending priorities. The centrepiece of Gordon Brown's big show on Wednesday will be his "welfare to work" plan, a commitment set in concrete two years ago and now looking as if it is holding up the wrong part of the edifice. We pointed out during the election campaign that there were already too few young people unemployed for more than six months to make sense of the pledge to take 250,000 of them off benefits and into work. The Chancellor's response has been to loosen the criteria, to include young people who have been out of work for shorter periods, making this one of the new Government's easier promises to keep. It would be much better to use the chance to transfer some of the money further down the food chain. For a government that is serious about causes, it makes more sense to spend the proceeds of the windfall tax on the next cohort of young people - those 14- to 19-year-olds who are still at school or college who might benefit from improved vocational education. In terms of employability, the taxpayer gets a bigger bang per buck spent on education and training in the 14-19 age group than on remedial schemes for 18-25s.

The Government has made an impressive start on its education priorities. But the urgent need is for the many bright ideas for practical improvements to be pushed through by motivated leadership at all levels. Persuasion will not be enough; goads must be used. The targets for literacy and numeracy set for 2002 are specific and demanding, but it is not an exaggeration to say that the Government's credibility rests on their fulfilment. Time to do, as someone once said.

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