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Thursday, 2 May, 2002, 22:12 GMT 23:12 UK
Work in progress on education
David Blunkett
David Blunkett brought in the literacy and numeracy hours
Conor Ryan, special adviser to the former education secretary, David Blunkett, reviews the successes and mistakes of New Labour's first five years.

Five years ago, David Blunkett started a revolution in our primary schools.

If "education, education, education" was Labour's number one priority, ensuring that primary schoolchildren could read, write and do basic maths became the Department for Education's overriding concern.

People forget how much changed - and how quickly. And the primary school reforms needed enormous willpower from teachers rather than legislative change.

We were accused of sending too much material to schools, yet few objected to the excellent literacy and numeracy materials which allowed a daily literacy hour to start in virtually every primary school in England by September 1998, with a daily numeracy lesson to follow.

Local education authorities may have had their critics, but the way hundreds of literacy and numeracy consultants trained tens of thousands of teachers was remarkable.

Budgets

And despite a reputation for central control, there was a huge freeing up of many other compulsory requirements in primary schools.

Moreover it was matched by an unprecedented cut in primary classes and improved adult-pupil ratios as teaching assistants acquired a vital new role.

Remarkably the seeds of reform were sown while Gordon Brown was still adhering to Tory spending rules (although education got a billion pound boost in 1998-99).

Without the improvements in primary schools, secondary reform this term would be impossible. But secondary schools were not neglected.

In the last Parliament, specialist school numbers more than doubled. Heads got greater control of their growing budgets.

And the Excellence in Cities scheme, started in 1999, has made a real difference in many inner-city schools.

The government also approved the first Muslim and Sikh state schools - an equitable decision which should have been made years before.

Recovery

If primary reform was Labour's biggest achievement, turning around failing schools ranks a close second.

Hardly any schools had successfully emerged from "special measures" by 1997. By giving them two years to improve - backed by financial and practical help - more than 750 failing schools were turned around.

Unfortunately some of the 25 schools given a Fresh Start (with new name, new staff) were unsuitable candidates and others took longer to improve, colouring an otherwise remarkable turnaround.

Our third most important change was more controversial. In 1997, all the parties were ready to reform student funding, whatever they say now.

Introducing fees and replacing grants with loans gave universities extra money. But it also rightly introduced an expectation that graduates pay back some of the costs of their university education when they could afford it.

It will be hard to find a fair, affordable alternative, though bursaries should be extended and 30 a week education maintenance allowances funded to enable all 16 to 18 year olds who wish to do so to study for A-levels or their equivalent.

Mistakes

No doubt some mistakes were made too.

In retrospect, the Social Exclusion Unit's exclusion targets were one, not least because exclusions would have fallen anyway once new in-school learning support units came on stream.

And it took longer than we might have hoped to cut the amount of bumf being sent to schools from the Department for Education, though big reductions were achieved by last year.

However, contrary to union mythology, Labour's first five years did not turn teachers away from the profession in droves. Numbers rose, as did teaching standards.

Pay also increased substantially, despite low inflation.

School funding did too. Thousands of vital school repairs were completed.

Big investments were made in new technology. And more was invested on training than ever.

More staff

The most interesting figure in last week's batch of government data is that there are now 20,000 more regular teachers than when Labour came to power.

And there are 100,000 more staff overall, including teaching assistants and administrative support staff.

Of course, had we had the money, we might have been able to introduce the training bursaries and performance pay a year sooner.

And ironically the direct grants we secured for head teachers in later budgets increased their demands for staff, causing problems in other schools.

But no recruitment drive or affordable pay rise can attract half of all maths graduates into teaching.

More money

Estelle Morris has made a good start as education secretary.

The expansion of specialist schools will improve standards and choice. And she has grasped the enormous potential of information and communication technology in changing the way in which schools operate.

I hope however that vocational opportunities increase dramatically for 14 to 19 year olds - that will do more to tackle indiscipline and truancy than last week's latest package, welcome though extra learning support units and pupil referral units are.

But the chancellor needs to play his part too, in the spending review. Health largely failed to deliver in the first term, yet has been amply rewarded.

If "something for something" means anything, the education system deserves its own performance-related pay.

Its reward should be sustained annual increases in funding for schools, colleges and universities.

There is still much to be done.

See also:

02 May 02 | Education
Schools policy 'like ad campaign'
02 May 02 | Education
Labour 'has stalled on schools'
08 Jun 01 | Education
Labour's plans for schools
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