Leading Article: Labour must do better with sums

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The Independent Online
The launch of Labour's new policy document on schools yesterday marks a fundamental shift in the left's approach to education. For decades, under-achievement in Britain's schools has been too easily explained away by the social and economic background of the children involved. Schools in the inner cities were never expected to deliver the same academic success as their counterparts in the leafy suburbs. The disadvantages were regarded as too great, with many of their pupils coming from homes without books, without fathers, or without parents who speak English as their mother tongue.

But the left has often done the disadvantaged few favours by its attitudes. Low expectations of children generate low self-esteem and probably low qualifications. Meanwhile real inadequacies in schools can be missed when little is expected of their pupils. The misguided acceptance of low standards has helped to sustain an education system in which large numbers of teenagers leave school without basic literacy and numeracy skills.

Yesterday, Tony Blair and David Blunkett broke with the past. They announced, in effect, that poor standards would not be tolerated. They want to set targets and monitoring mechanisms for every pupil, parent, teacher, headteacher, school and local authority. It is a good start. But can they deliver the improvements?

Two main areas of Labour's policy suggest that they could make a considerable difference. The first is increasing parental participation in their children's education. Drawing families into schools is essential, for if mum and dad don't think qualifications count, the children are unlikely to work hard in the classroom. In addition, Labour proposes setting minimum levels of homework, and parents would be expected to make sure their kids sat down to do it rather than watching television.

The second big plank of Labour's policy is improving the quality of teaching and leadership in schools. Teachers and headteachers who are not up to the job should be sacked, as Labour suggests.

We need this stick, but what about the carrots? Good teachers also need to be recruited, encouraged and inspired. Mr Blunkett clearly recognises this. He proposes both a General Teaching Council and a new teaching position - an "Advanced Skills Teacher" - for long-serving, successful teachers who do not want to be promoted into administration.

Unsurprisingly, however, Labour does not tackle the real problem of pay. If we are really to attract bright graduates into teaching, salary scales for successful teachers will have to rise.

In the end, it is hard to propose convincing policies for improving schools where large numbers of pupils have language or behavioural problems without confronting the issue of resources. New and dynamic headteachers need to be able to appoint the best teachers on salaries that reward them for the difficult task they are taking on. More should be invested in special needs, and remedial help for literacy and numeracy weaknesses. In a political environment unfriendly to tax increases, that means finding savings elsewhere.

All the more reason why Labour should spell out its spending priorities before a general election. Until they do so, it is impossible to know how much difference they are really prepared to make to Britain's schools.