Page last updated at 15:37 GMT, Monday, 14 May 2007 16:37 UK

'Education, education, education'

Tony Blair in education

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

"Education, education, education" was how Tony Blair set out his priorities for office - as Labour campaigned to put classrooms at the top of the political agenda.

So how much has his 10 years in office achieved for schools, colleges and universities in England? Devolution is another part of the legacy, so this has been about England rather than the rest of the UK.

How much has the reality matched the rhetoric of radical change?

There is no doubt that there has been a major financial investment. Whether the money has been wisely spent is another question - but the cash has certainly been made available, with the government now spending almost 1.2bn on education every week.

So where has the money gone?

2001 election announcement

Between 1997 and the current academic year, the core "per pupil" funding has risen by 48% in real terms - or 1,450 more per year per child. By the end of next year, it will be a 55% increase.

There are now about 35,000 more teachers than in 1997 - reducing pupil-teacher ratios and class sizes in primary and secondary. Teachers' pay has risen by 18% in real terms, and heads have had a pay hike of 27%.

Another quiet revolution has been the huge increase in support workers, such as teaching assistants - up by 172,000. To put it into context, that's like recruiting an additional workforce that is bigger than the army, navy and air force put together.

Testing times

This means that there are now almost three quarters of a million people working in schools - and that in secondary schools there is one adult for every 11 pupils.

per pupil funding up 48% (55% by 2008)
35,000 more teachers
172,000 more teaching assistants
18% rise in teachers' pay
1,106 new schools; others refurbished
five good GCSEs with English and maths up from 36% to 45%
truancy unchanged despite fines and prison for parents
a quarter of 16 to 18-year-olds still not in education or training
employees receiving job-related training unchanged on 15%
university tuition fees introduced then raised to 3,000 p.a.
first-time higher education students up 44,000 to 283,000
Source: DfES

Anyone who has walked into a school, particularly in the last couple of years, will have seen school buildings renovated or replaced and the upgrades in information technology. Capital investment has increased eightfold since 1997.

But while it might sound as though the cash is being bulldozed into education, seen from an international perspective the spending suddenly seems more modest.

By the end of the decade, education will be receiving 5.6% of GDP - which compares to the 5.5% that is the current average for education in industrialised countries. It means a huge amount of cash has been spent to push us all the way up to average.

But have standards improved? Has the investment brought the promised advances?

When Labour entered office, another mantra was that it was about "standards not structures".

Graph showing results trend since 1998
Rather than get dragged into arguments over the few remaining grammar schools or tussling over school choice, the emphasis was on a drive to push up standards in all schools - such as introducing a compulsory literacy and numeracy hour in primary schools.

Has it worked? Educational achievement is a slow supertanker to turn around, with initiatives taking many years to work through the system. The first wave of pupils to have received the literacy hour throughout their primary school years still have not taken their GCSEs.

But have test and exam results shown improvements?

In primary school tests in 1997, taken in the weeks before the general election, 63% of 11-year-olds reached the expected levels in English, 62% in maths and 69% in science.

Nine years later, the test results were all up - 79% in English, 76% in maths and 87% in science in 2006.

Comprehensive change

Is it enough? Looked at another way, that means that more than one in five children have spent six or seven years in primary school without learning to read and write properly.

Blair in cookery lesson
Healthy school dinners appeared on the political menu

And teachers complain about the creativity of the primary years being lost to an obsession with testing and league tables.

Last summer's GCSE results were published with a new emphasis on the basics - measured in terms of how many pupils achieved the equivalent of five good GCSEs including English and maths.

This showed that only 45.1% of pupils were ending compulsory education with these qualifications - up from 35.6% in 1997, although part of the change is that a much wider range of qualifications is now included among the "good GCSEs".

Throughout the Blair years, there has been a constant debate over whether exam and test results are really an objective indication of higher standards. Can A-level results really improve year after year?

As the Blair years progressed, the structures of education - how schools were organised and managed - became an increasingly important target, particularly as attention shifted from primary to secondary schools.

Even though secondary school standards were broadly rising, there was still a stark gap between the achievement of pupils in affluent and deprived communities.

Two nations

There are parts of the country where a large majority of children can comfortably expect to go to university and others where it is more likely that youngsters will leave school at 16 without much in the way of qualifications.

Tony Blair in Birmingham school
Tony Blair turned his attention to secondary schools

And in a very Blairite blend, the cause of social justice and breaking the cycle of underachievement was coupled with controversial plans to shake up the public sector.

Private companies took over failing local authorities, struggling schools were relaunched under Fresh Start and city academies were created, setting up high-cost, autonomous state schools with private sector involvement.

The "education action zones" gave way to Excellence in Cities, focusing money and attention on inner-city underachievement. And now trusts are to create a new type of organisation, which could involve schools, colleges and universities outside of local authority control.

Another phrase from the Blair era was the demise of the "bog standard comprehensive". And one of the huge, almost unacknowledged changes has been the disappearance of comprehensives from the English education system.

A large majority - 85% - of state secondary schools are now specialist schools and there are plans for 400 city academies.

The role of schools has also broadened in a way that would make many inner-city schools unrecognisable from a generation ago - providing social care as well as education.

Extended schools with breakfast and after-school clubs have begun to blur the boundaries between education, childcare and social services. Secondary schools have parallel staffs of mentors and behaviour advisers.

Local education authorities are now children's services.

Tuition fees

There has also been a push for early intervention - with free part-time nursery places for four and then three-year-olds and the Sure Start project, aimed at improving health, education and welfare for the youngest children.

Blair tuition fees
The government faced a major rebellion over tuition fees

Higher education has been a consistently thorny area for the Blair governments.

From the first announcement that tuition fees would be imposed for students, made back in 1997, it has been a tough pitch for education ministers.

The biggest backbench rebellion faced by his government was over variable tuition fees - but now that the principle has been established, they seem set to become permanent fixture of university life.

But despite the campaigns to widen access, there has only been slow progress in getting more youngsters from poorer homes into higher education. And the target of getting 50% of youngsters into university by the end of the decade now looks unlikely to achieved.

This was a government that liked to set targets and has always showed strong controlling instincts, firing off guidelines and regulations with a rapidity that stretched the patience of many heads and teachers.

It was accused of trying to run the country's schools from a photocopier in Westminster - and there are still frequent complaints of "initiative fatigue" and an overload of paperwork for head teachers.


But there were other failures which showed how difficult it can be for governments to get people to change their behaviour.

Truancy and behaviour problems have remained unresolved

Truancy was going to be cut by a third, promised the social exclusion unit. In fact, despite threats of jailing parents and numerous ways of counting absences, the problem has refused to go away.

Bad behaviour and aggression in the classroom also show no sign of significant change - despite numerous initiatives, crackdowns and promises of "zero tolerance".

And the question of vocational education - always described as vital (for other people's children) - has remained unresolved, despite the chorus of warnings about skills gaps.

The latest proposals - the specialised Diplomas - have already wobbled on the runway before take-off.

What will be the legacy for subsequent governments? How do you compare the long-term impact of giving infants free fruit against a headline-grabbing multi-million-pound technology investment? How do you measure a free nursery place against a pay rise for teachers?

Education reform is always a work in progress, slowly percolating through a diverse system, and likely to frustrate ministers looking for instant responses.

How will it be judged?

A golden age? A blizzard of gimmicks? A new lease of life for public services? A door opened for privatisation? There will be at least three and probably four general elections before today's Sure Start babies leave school and reveal the answers.

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