Today's lesson: excellence

As Labour unveils plans to raise classroom standards, Michael Barber offers a critical preview
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The Independent Online
Today, the Labour Party publishes its policy document on standards in schools, Excellence for Everyone. The document takes Labour boldly into territory which for much of the past 10 years has been dominated by the Conservatives. A few years ago talk of standards, excellence and dealing with failure were almost taboo in Labour circles. The Blair revolution, led in education by David Blunkett, has changed all that.

New Labour will insist on high standards. Education, Tony Blair says, will be the passion of his government. For years Labour has talked about creating successful schools for everyone; only this year, by facing the tough question of how to deal with failure, has it begun to show it means it.

Behind this new sense of purpose is Labour's recognition of the economic and social imperatives of the late 20th century. Its leaders know that much higher standards of education are an essential precondition of a successful British economy and an improved quality of life. As Tony Blair put it at Labour's conference, "Education is the best economic policy we've got."

The ideas in Excellence for Everyone have been developed over the past 12 months in a series of speeches by Blair and Blunkett. Until mid-summer their focus was on deciding what to do about opted-out schools. Once their proposals for bringing those schools within the local authority framework had been widely welcomed in June, they moved on to the task of staking out a new agenda on standards.

Excellence for Everyone is certainly ambitious, to judge from the language it uses. It talks about "a crusade to raise standards", "a decade of sustained improvement" and creating "a new Britain which can hold its head high in a modern world". It envisages an education system in which many more people will succeed in getting GCSE, A-level and vocational qualifications. The tone seems designed to co-opt teachers, parents and governors, for the first time since the war, into a national movement to transform education. But, rhetoric aside, what of the detailed proposals?

The document sets out to encourage schools to improve themselves through setting targets, raising the status and levels of performance of teachers and involving parents as co-educators. This would undoubtedly require additional investment. While the document identifies money for smaller classes in infant schools, the core funding of education remains to be established.

On the question of how to get the necessary results from those who will have to implement the policy - teachers - the document proposes a judicious balance of pressure and support, stick and carrot. Thus Labour promises teachers support in the form of a reconstruction of their profession, to give it greater status. There would be a General Teaching Council to speak for teachers on educational issues. There would be new advanced pay grades to enable teachers to gain promotion and recognition without necessarily moving into management.

Other people - from business, for example - would be encouraged to becoming teaching associates. There would be greater para-professional support from classroom assistants and smaller classes in infant schools.

This is an indication that Labour sees improvement in nursery and primary education as the central priority. Given the evidence published last week of falling reading standards, this emphasis is likely to be welcomed.

The pressure on teachers would be generated by requiring all schools to set targets for improvement and by insisting on the publication of performance data and regular inspection. Failing schools would be closed and, if necessary, reopened with a "fresh start" under new management. The process for removing a consistently poor teacher would be streamlined.

More pressure is promised on parents, too. The document proposes establishing minimum levels of homework for children at different ages. This will require parents to insist that Neighbours is turned off. There would be home- school contracts obliging parents to sign up to supporting their child and the school. The rights that parents have acquired over the past decade are to be balanced by new responsibilities.

These ideas give today's policy proposals a coherence which has sometimes been lacking in the past. In contrast to the Government's clear drive for choice and diversity, Labour has often appeared to offer either reactive criticism or an unconnected assortment of policy wheezes. New Labour, on the other hand, has what Tony Blair would call a project: the creation of a modern public service in which individual schools have substantial autonomy and are held publicly accountable. Schools, staffed by a reinvigorated, constantly improving teaching profession, are being asked to lead the crusade.

In advancing this agenda, Labour policy builds on what the Government is already doing. This is further evidence of new Labour's willingness to consider ideas on their merits, regardless of ideological origins. The policy also draws on the experience of the more successful Labour- held local authorities, just as much of the Conservative agenda of the late Eighties was first tested by councils such as Croydon and Wandsworth.

The influence of Birmingham, where Tim Brighouse, the chief education officer, and Andy Howell, chair of the city's education committee, have spearheaded the transformation of the education service, is persuasive. In Birmingham each school has set its own improvement targets, five-year- olds are assessed on entry to school, there is a city-wide literacy strategy and a constant emphasis on the importance of teachers improving their own skills.

Not all Labour LEAs are as enlightened as Birmingham. As opted-out schools enter local-authority jurisdiction, there are bound to be tensions. And once central government requires local authorities to set targets, and then inspects them, those tensions will be exacerbated. A Labour government will face tough decisions if a series of school inspections were to suggest that LEAs were not having a positive impact on standards.

It is also worth asking whether today's policy proposals will ultimately prove radical enough. The 21st century will usher in the "Learning Society". If the phrase is to mean anything, it must surely mean a society in which everyone is an active learner. Future governments will have to think in terms of widening the range of learning opportunities for young people outside school, especially in disadvantaged areas. Today's document proposes after-school study centres, but that can only be the start.

The creation of a Learning Society in this country will require a rethinking of our whole attitude to the provision of education. Excellence For Everyone, if implemented, would begin that process.

The writer is professor of education at the Institute of Education, University of London.