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Labour - One Year On Wednesday, 29 April, 1998, 16:31 GMT 17:31 UK
Labour's first year in education
Mike Baker
By the BBC's Education Correspondent, Mike Baker,

In their first year Labour concentrated on standards in schools and took dramatic decisions on tuition fees. They have faced problems in the classroom but encouraged life-long learning. Mike Baker gives the government its end of year report.


Looking back over the first year, it is clear that Labour has formed a very precise direction for its education policy.

Senior civil servants acknowledged that the education team arrived knowing exactly what it wanted to do. That team included one of the government's high-flying junior ministers, Stephen Byers, and the former Tory Education Minister, Alan Howarth.

Raising the standard

Early July brought the White Paper "Excellence in Schools". Its scope was massive - a whole new framework for schools - but the structural change was deliberately played down to ensure the focus was put on raising standards.

Therefore, Labour compromised to avoid messy political rows and any upheavals which would blur the "tough on standards" message.

Furthermore, schools can still select some of their pupils by aptitude. Grammar schools will continue unless local parents vote for change. Opted-out schools will get a new name but will continue to be distinctive from other schools.

With the Tories suffering from disbelief and disarray, the teaching unions still deciding whether they would do better to support or attack the new government, and the newspapers approving of Labour's tough stance on standards, Education Secretary David Blunkett enjoyed a lengthy political honeymoon.

Labour's suprisingly tough move

The first serious wobble came in July when Labour unwrapped the ticking time-bomb the previous government had passed to Sir Ron Dearing, the Chairman of the Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education.

Before the election, all the political parties had been happy to touch on tricky decisions about how to fund the country's hugely-expanded university system. The government now had to face its toughest education policy decision.

Labour surprised everyone, including Sir Ron, by being even tougher than expected. Not only did it break the long-held principle of free education by agreeing to impose tuition fees, but it also ended the system of grants to cover living costs.

Despite what has been said, Labour broke no election pledges. The manifesto had proposed a scheme for replacing grants with loans. While it was true that Labour had ruled out allowing universities to charge "top-up" fees, they had carefully avoided ruling out a national fees system.

For all that, a government which prided itself on its ability to "spin", the news failed to sell its higher education package.

Neither did Labour manage get across the message that most students will not be liable for the full cost of the fees nor will they have to start repaying the loans until after they have graduated. Even then they will only pay once their income is above a certain, admittedly fairly low, level.

Trouble in the classroom

As their first year ends, Labour now faces some difficulties on the schools front.

The most prominent manifesto promise - to reduce infant class sizes - is going to be a tough one to deliver. The first reductions in class sizes should be visible in September.

After that, major obstacles will stand in the way of further progress, principally the shortage of spare accommodation in popular schools and the conflicting demands of parental choice.

As ever, money will be the other big issue. Education has won extra money from the Chancellor but it will not be enough to prevent school budget problems in many parts of the country. The backlog of school building repairs is huge and extra capital will be needed to deliver the class sizes pledge.

Teachers are also not happy that Labour has maintained the Conservative tradition of phasing their pay award. A looming teacher recruitment crisis will make this a more serious issue than it has been for a decade.

If there are not enough good teachers in schools, the government's standards targets will not be reached.

So Labour will try to concentrate on low-cost, narrowly-targeted reforms. The first Education Action Zones will be launched in September.

Located in areas where standards are stubbornly refusing to rise fast enough, they will be test-beds for government initiatives like "Advanced Skills Teachers" and the freedom to dispense with the National Curriculum.

Life-Long Learning

In a country where "swot" or "boffin" are derogatory remarks, changing attitudes to education would be a major achievement. This is not just about schools either.

Labour's "Lifelong Learning" initiatives could make a huge change to people's employability and their quality of life.

It employs the sort of educational jargon which leaves most people cold. But the idea is simple: we must all continue to improve our existing skills and acquire new ones if we are to survive in a fast-changing world.

A workforce that constantly updates its skills is vital to the economy and vital to the revitalisation of regions which have lost their traditional employment.

The merging of the Departments of Education and Employment under the last government has given Labour a platform for an integrated education and training framework.

The planned University for Industry and the Individual Learning Accounts could transform attitudes to adult education, although the government seems to believe it can do this relatively cheaply.

Yet even more important than adult and higher education is getting the foundations of education right. That means ensuring primary schools equip children with the basic skills of numeracy and literacy.

The most important performance indicators for this government will be the national targets in English and Mathematics for 11 year olds. The 5-year targets look tough but schools are moving in the right direction.

David Blunkett has staked his own reputation on achieving them; they will also be one of the key tests of this government's success.

Links to more Labour - One Year On stories are at the foot of the page.


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