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EDITIONS
Friday, 8 June, 2001, 20:12 GMT 21:12 UK
Blunkett's end-of-term report
Blunkett
David Blunkett gets his end-of-year report
By education correspondent Mike Baker

Now the "polling station" signs have been removed from school entrances, leaving students to get on with their exams in peace again, attention turns to the in-tray of the new Education Secretary.

Unlike in the USA, where there is a decent interval between election and taking office, the newly-elected government is already getting down to work.

After an election fought on the public services, Labour must now deliver on education.

There can be no excuses next time that the job is only just begun.

Blunkett's legacy

Although clearly relishing his new role, the former Education Secretary, David Blunkett, believes he has provided the base on which his successor can build.

He was in reflective mood as I waited with him in an ante-room of Sheffield Town Hall chamber where his large majority was being counted.

Looking back on his four years with education, he said he had been fortunate in being part of a government with "a clear programme" and in having a new Permanent Secretary, Michael Bichard, who was "committed to change".

Certainly, back in May 1997, after 18 years in the wilderness Labour politicians were eager to start work.

Dedication

On the day after the election, Blunkett arrived at the Department for Education and Employment and remained there for that Friday and most of the weekend too.

I know because much of the time I was either standing outside talking to a TV camera or inside filming the new secretary of state getting used to his new office.

There was an extraordinary sense of newness and unreality. Things were about to change - and not just the ministerial red boxes which weren't big enough to take Braille sheets.

Labour had big plans but they also intended to prove their just how 'New' Labour they were.

'Name and shame'

Within days, the Schools Minister, Stephen Byers - the department's Blairite "spy-in-the-cab" - was producing his "name and shame" list of the 20 most seriously failing schools.

The tough message may have been driven home, to the delight of the Daily Mail, but enormous damage was done to relations between the new government and the teaching profession.

Meanwhile Blunkett was working hard on the first major education bill ever to come from a Labour government. Remarkably, all the previous big education reforms had come from Tory governments.

Even the wartime coalition government's ground-breaking 1944 Education Act had been produced by the Conservative Education Minister, R.A. Butler.

National curriculum

The other major post-war reform - the 1988 Education Reform Act which created the national curriculum and national testing - came during Mrs Thatcher's government.

Despite what many believe, the spread of comprehensive schools was not the result of Labour legislation but began as a cross-party, local authority initiative.

Labour governments did put pressure on reluctant local authorities to reorganise their schools but the governments of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan produced no major reforming education legislation.

So, David Blunkett had the chance to become the first Labour Education Secretary to really stamp his mark on the education system. How has he fared?

Achievements

The biggest achievements have been in nursery and primary schools.

Labour ended the shambles of nursery vouchers and have expanded nursery places involving local authorities, the private and the voluntary sector.

In primary schools, Mr Blunkett has virtually achieved the manifesto promise to cut infant class sizes and has made some progress with over-sized classes in junior schools.

The biggest achievement was the introduction of the numeracy and literacy hours.

Other pluses include the growth of homework clubs and summer schools and the targeting of resources at inner city schools through the Excellence In Cities scheme.

Spending

On the big issue of spending, the report card is more mixed. Gordon Brown's insistence on sticking to Tory spending plans - while perhaps necessary to win voters' confidence - meant no bonanza for schools.

Only in the last two years, has Mr Blunkett successfully loosened the Treasury's purse from "prudent" Mr Brown's grip.

Mr Blunkett himself has admitted he also made a rather slow start in tackling the full extent of recruitment and low morale in the teaching profession.

There have been many initiatives, and teacher numbers are at their highest since 1984, but teacher vacancies are rising.

The introduction of performance-related pay was one of Mr Blunkett's two toughest decisions.

The other was the introduction of university tuition fees.

It is still too early to say whether the grief over performance pay was worth it.

Teacher recruitment and retention figures over the next few years will be the true test.

Secondary schools

On secondary schools, the "fresh start" policy for failing schools has been a mixed success with some successes balanced by a few high profile failures.

Meanwhile, a remarkably high number of schools have been brought out of "special measures" in the past four years.

School discipline has been another tricky area for the government.

Setting targets for cutting exclusions was probably may have been an error as it put pressure on schools to keep disruptive pupils in the classroom.

On the other hand, creating on-site units for such youngsters has helped overcome the tragedy of excluded pupils being cast out completely from mainstream education.

School report

So, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, here is Mr Blunkett's report card:

End of term report
Name:
David Blunkett
Subject
Grade
Comments
Nursery and primary schools

A

Effective reforms, met targets, standards rising

Secondary schools

C+

Mixed success, looking for progress next term

Teacher recruitment

C-

Worked hard, but finding subject difficult

Spending

B

Picked up well after slow start

Universities

C

Brave decisions but still problems to solve

As Mr Blunkett moves on the new ministerial intake will get straight to work on an Education Bill for the forthcoming Queen's Speech.

The first term insistence on "standards not structures" is clearly being abandoned in favour of a drive towards more specialist schools, City Academies and church schools.

Is the upheaval going to be worth it? Will it create a two tier system as teachers fear?

Meanwhile the teacher shortage remains the biggest cloud hovering over the Department for Education.

Will the new education secretary avoid getting a soaking?

We shall know by the time those "polling station" signs go up outside our schools again in 2005.


Mike Baker welcomes your comments at educationnews@bbc.co.uk although he cannot always answer individual e-mails.

See also:

08 Jun 01 | Vote2001
08 Jun 01 | Vote2001
12 Dec 00 | UK Education
08 Feb 01 | UK Education
14 Apr 01 | UK Education
Internet links:


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