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My three tests for Labour's plan

My three tests for Labour's plan

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Published by visky

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Published by: visky on Jun 25, 2008
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My three tests for Labour's plan
Estelle Morris joins Education Guardian today. In the first of her regular columns,the former education secretary fears that ministers' priorities have changed for the worse
 Anyone remember that 1990s mantra, "standards not structures"? I do, mainly becausethose three words crept into almost every speech I made from about 1995 onwards. Theywere the headline for Labour's policy in the run-up to the 1997 general election and became the guiding light through much of the next five years. As a political slogan, itused to be up there with the greats - "end to boom and bust", "tough on crime ..." and allthe rest. I doubt, though, if anyone will remember it five years from now.It's not merely a phrase that's gone out of fashion. It's been ditched because it no longer fits with the government's thinking. Labour's secondary school reform programme centreson structural change: 200 city academies, new models of governance, a diminished rolefor the local education authority, and private sector sponsorship, all leading to a system of state independent schools that is intended to offer more choice and diversity. Ruth Kelly'sspeech last week, in which the education secretary said parents would be given the power to set up schools, is another step in this direction.Maybe we shouldn't be too surprised. The record of politicians in education has alwaystended towards structural change in our secondary schools. In the post war era, we've been through grammar schools, technical schools, secondary modern schools,comprehensive schools, grant-maintained schools and city technology colleges (CTCs),community schools and now academies. Selection has been introduced and partlyabolished; governance has been changed and changed again. We politicians are serialmeddlers in the structure of secondary education.Standards not structures was meant to change all that. By the mid-1990s, we'd seen adecade or more of reform. Some of it was good, and much of it was contentious: thenational curriculum, performance tables, assisted places, grant-maintained schools andCTCs. But, when you talked to parents and the wider public, what bothered them was thatalmost half of our 11-year-olds were behind in reading, writing and number work, andthousands of 16-year-olds were leaving school with no qualifications at all. The talk among politicians may have been about structures, but the concern of parents was aboutstandards.So standards became the banner under which New Labour marched. Hardlyrevolutionary, you might think. Have you ever met anyone who is against raisingstandards? But it was not just standards. It was standards not structures. The structuralissues that had to be dealt with - grammar schools, grant-maintained status - werehandled with the lightest of touches and the minimum of fuss. Teaching and learningreceived full attention: the literacy and numeracy strategies, smaller primary school
classes, Excellence in Cities and investment in the professional development of teachers.It was a whole new way of politicians taking responsibility for our children's education.As a minister at that time, I've a hefty degree of self-interest in saying so, butcommentators and parents agreed that primary schools - the focus of the government'sattention early on - improved, some quite dramatically. A victory, you might havethought, for standards not structures. Well, apparently not.Like every generation of politicians before it, when it came to secondary school reform, New Labour turned to structural change. The argument goes something like this. Parentswant a school that best meets the individual needs of their child. Changing the structureto create different types of school gives greater choice, one that will drive up standardsand sort out the good from the bad. The popular schools can then expand and the onesthat parents don't want to send their children to can be closed. So higher standards areachieved through structural change, diversity and choice.Don't get me wrong. I'm for choice and diversity and against uniformity - unless it's auniformity of excellence. Celebrating the differences between our schools is just asimportant as valuing the common entitlement they are supposed to guarantee. No publicservice in the 21st century will flourish unless the customer is given power and influence.The question is whether choice and diversity are really the most powerful levers to dowhat needs to be done.When you look at the history of state secondary education, it's difficult to conclude thatthere's been too little structural choice and diversity. It's been the diversity in standards,not the diversity in structures, that's been our problem. We've never hit on a way of raising the standards of all schools to those of the very best.That is the challenge facing politicians. Unless there are universally high standards,choice isn't a matter of selecting the school that best suits your child. It becomes a racefor the best the state can offer. That contest can be pretty hard-fought. And, notsurprisingly, the same groups turn up on the losing side under any system that isn't basedon universally high standards. Poor families lost out under selective education and theylose out under "choice". Have you ever heard of a council who moved a family so theycould live closer to a popular school and have a better chance of getting a place at it? Andwhat choice is there in rural areas?There's no getting away from the big question: what's the best way to raise standards inevery secondary school? Is the sort of structural change on which the government hasembarked likely to do so? I've no doubt it will give us more good schools, many inneighbourhoods that have suffered generations of underachievement. But will it realisethe holy grail of making every school a good school, so that choice can mean more thansimply distinguishing between good and bad? I remain to be convinced.Education is a people business. That's why so many of us can recall the teacher whochanged our life. And that's why "Whose class are they in next year?" is just as importanta question as "Is the school a specialist technology or humanities school?" There's onlyone thing that raises standards and that's when more teachers teach more effectively - because they're better led and better trained and work in an environment committed to
learning.One of the greatest success stories in recent years has been the development of specialistschools. They don't achieve their success through structural change. It would be fancifulto imagine that merely designating an institution a specialist school makes it good. It's theambition for specialist status that gives the school the incentive to focus on teaching andlearning. That's why standards so often rise across the curriculum and not just in thespecialist subjects. Specialist schools have turned teachers into researchers as well asusers of research. They have delivered some of the finest professional development and,crucially, have the potential to touch every single secondary pupil.Another round of structural change won't by itself achieve universally high standards.Worse than that, it could be a distraction. Spending £5bn on 200 academies in the nextfive years and recruiting some of our best heads to run them is almost certain to bringsuccess for the schools involved.Bringing in business skills isn't wrong. It makes sense to use outside expertise tocomplement the skills of teachers, though the white paper the government plans to publish soon will need to provide a framework for far greater accountability andopenness for business sponsors than exists at the moment. But the risk is that all of thisshifts the focus from what really will make the difference.Ministers are at their best when they prioritise and, although every department has a policy on everything, it soon becomes clear where ministers' priorities lie. Those priorities attract the best civil servants, and the most resources, time and energy.Structural change is now the number one priority at the Department for Education andSkills.Will it eclipse the battle for higher standards, as structural changes have done before? Ioffer three tests:
In five years' time, whose children will be going to these new academies? Will choiceand market forces once again squeeze out the children of the disadvantaged whoseschools they replaced?
With their independent status, will these schools contribute to the greater good of education in their locality? How will they work with other schools on issues such asexclusions?
Third, will the government spend as much time, effort and resources on teaching andlearning in the rest of our secondary schools as it is investing in structural change in the200?The success of academies depends on a positive response to these questions every bit asmuch as the improvement in their GCSE and A-level scores.Almost every article that has appeared under my name in the past 10 years has beeneither an explanation or a defence of Labour's policies. That's a consequence of collectiveresponsibility and I loved it. But one reason I left the House of Commons was to free

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