Conor Ryan: Ministers need the levers for their plan

Thursday 29 July 2004 00:00

I have lost count of the times that Labour has buried comprehensive education since Tony Blair became leader.

I have lost count of the times that Labour has buried comprehensive education since Tony Blair became leader. In February 1996, David Blunkett, then shadow Secretary of State for Education, supported specialist schools, fast-tracking and stretching bright comprehensive pupils. Lurid headlines summoned the undertakers.

In Labour's first term, specialist schools expanded. Programmes for the gifted and talented were set up. And city academies were first announced. Helped by Alastair Campbell's colourful slaughter of "bog-standard comprehensives", the men in black were recalled. With school uniforms, the house system, academies and independent specialist schools, the hearse was on standby again when Labour's five-year plan emerged recently.

Yet, in the real world, most specialist schools do not select an elite of pupils. Academies can't. And most secondary schools have uniforms.

Nevertheless, there are many good new ideas in the Government's plan. Encouraging the house system meshes modern views about smaller schools with traditionalist thinking. The change to three-year funding is overdue, though schools should have to publish their budgets on the internet to meet Audit Commission concerns about transparency. And potentially the most significant policy is about pupil, not parental, choice: "personalised learning" could give each youngster a curriculum suiting their own aptitudes and interests.

However, all this could be so much wishful thinking without the right levers in place, since ministers have responded to charges of "control-freakery" by divesting themselves of the means to make change happen. The literacy and numeracy strategies were not compulsory in primary schools. But they had plenty of top-down pressure and support. Consultants spread the word. Teaching materials and lesson plans were freely available. Targeted funding paid for training. A raft of new data was provided from tests and new technologies.

Who will see that all pupils get their own curriculum? More computers and teaching assistants might help. But the new, shorter Ofsted inspections will witness even fewer lessons. The DfES Standards and Effectiveness Unit, which pushed for earlier reform, is going. Separate funding streams are drying up, too.

Good head teachers and schools already embrace personalised learning. What will persuade the rest to change? The truth is that most staff and governors are pretty conservative. Faced with losing a staff member or funding an untried new initiative, they will opt for the former, unless the resources are earmarked. Schools should have maximum funding independence, but let's not pretend that doesn't also make it difficult for ministers to guarantee that major changes will happen as they plan.

This means striking a proper balance between freedoms and accountability, if governments are to be accountable for their "guarantees" to voters. Indeed, the success of specialist schools owes a lot to clear targets attached to extra funding and the threat of losing coveted specialist status.

Equally, if ministers want more choice, they must enable it to happen. As the education select committee has noted, it is the "catchment area" rule rather than the "surplus places" rule that is the problem in many urban areas. Many good "neighbourhood schools" are restricted to those who can afford to move house into their catchment area. The law allows schools to draw pupils of all abilities from a much wider area than their immediate vicinity, provided they take a fair proportion of students from each ability band. Few apart from city technology colleges do so. If the Government gave strong encouragement and incentives to schools to band - and improved school transport - it could provide all parents with more real choice.

So, too, with personalised education. If it is to become a universal entitlement, it will need a drive no less intensive than that which accompanied the literacy and numeracy strategies, and a much clearer view about what the end result should be. Pupils and teachers can and should play a big part in its development. And, with a massive school-building programme, there is a rare opportunity to enable school design to support curricular change.

Labour has a coherent and compelling vision for the next five years. But it will require more than good ideas for its radical intentions to become reality. Ministers may have to exert a few levers from above as well as hoping for change from below.

The writer was political adviser to David Blunkett from 1993 to 2001

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