Page last updated at 18:17 GMT, Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Obama's blueprint for education

Barack Obama
President Obama has made early years education a priority

Anyone viewing President Obama's education plans from a UK perspective will be reminded of Labour's ambitions in 1997.

The incoming US president wants to offer more support for early years children, promote innovation in schools and shut down those that are failing.

There will be a drive to widen access to higher education - with more student funding and awareness-raising.

Obama's education secretary is Chicago school chief, Arne Duncan.

Under the banner of "Zero to five", the new administration is promising extra support for early years - arguing that for every dollar invested, there will be a return to society worth $7 to $10.

After-school clubs

This argument, which underpins Labour's Sure Start policy, says that intervening in improving in the health, learning and well-being of pre-school children is the key to opportunities in later life.

There will be extra funding for Head Start and Early Head Start, improved childcare and child tax credits.

Arne Duncan
President Obama with education secretary, Arne Duncan

The quality of teaching is on the agenda - with promises of better pay, recruitment incentives and targets for finding staff in particular subject areas, including maths and science.

There is to be a particular drive to support education in deprived areas - with plans to reduce the drop-out rate and close the achievement gap.

Among the suggestions are summer schools, after-school clubs and to improve discipline.

However, a favourite Labour phrase, "zero tolerance", has been dumped - with Obama education blueprint saying that "zero tolerance policies are ineffective and often counterproductive".

Another departure from Labour's script is the rejection of the Sats tests - with the promise to end "teaching to the test".

The economic significance of education, as set out by President Obama, is defined in terms that have often been set out by the current Labour leader, Gordon Brown and his predecessor, Tony Blair.

"Education is now the currency of the Information Age. It's no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success - it's a pre-requisite," says President Obama - using terms that could have come straight from the Labour text book.

"There simply aren't as many jobs today that can support a family where only a high school degree is required. And if you don't have that degree, there are even fewer jobs available that can keep you out of poverty."

However there is a very major difference between Labour's re-shaping of education and Obama's ambitions.

England has a centralised system, where the Westminster government exerts control over many aspects of what happens in schools. But in the United States, education operates at a state and local level.

The ability of federal education authorities to influence the lives of more than 70 million US school pupils is more limited - when much of the school funding comes from states or from local authorities.

This also means that there can be wide differences in the funding, regulations and attainment in different states and local areas. Even the school leaving ages vary in different parts of the country.

There is another part of Obama's campaigning that can be traced to a significant early years education figure from the UK. Bob the Builder.

"Yes, we can."

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