Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Building on Blair's reforms?

For all the rhetoric in the Commons today, one thing stands out clearly from today's White Paper by Michael Gove: his education agenda represents far more continuity from the reforms introduced by Tony Blair and David Blunkett than it does a dramatic change from the direction of the last thirteen years.

There is much to be welcomed in the paper: the extension of floor targets, a hugely successful drive that saw underperformers fall from 1600 to under 200 between 1997 and 2010; expansion of in-school teacher training, building on Labour's Teach First, graduate teaching programme (renamed Teach Next) and training schools (rebranded teaching schools); marginal changes to the right to discipline introduced in 2006 (with a watering down of the plan to scrap exclusion panels and a welcome pilot of giving schools clearer responsibilities for excluded pupils); promotion of synthetic phonics (Blair, 2006) with a welcome new reading test; a doubling of Labour's National Leaders of Education; a reiteration of the strategic role for local authorities envisaged by Tony Blair in his 2005 White Paper; an acceptance of an increased education leaving age. There should be little reason for Labour to oppose any of this.

The paper also reiterates the coalition's plans for academies and free schools, a pupil premium with a less than clear commitment on a national funding formula and an opposition to the extension of selection. Despite the partisan rhetoric that has accompanied its launch, there is a sensible change of tone in the paper itself, acknowledging many of the genuine improvements of the last 15 years while focusing on benchmarking with the best in the world. Where there must be cause for doubt are around some of the planned changes to the curriculum. It makes sense to reduce the league table value of some vocational qualifications; it is less clear that an expectation that every student should achieve history and languages GCSEs is the best way to address the needs of those who have a more practical set of abilities.

Moreover, today's paper comes against a less distinguished backdrop of change over recent months. The wholesale desire to scrap quangos and initiatives, including Building Schools for the Future, has created some big potential problems: Gove's slagging off of the School Sports Partnerships is shameful and inaccurate: there are far more pupils playing in competitive team games as a result of their work, as well as participating in PE. It is wrong to pretend they will survive if the money for them is devolved across all schools. This is a decision that should be rescinded until the partnerships have the chance to win new funding, not least as the National Funding Formula has been put on hold. Equally destructive are plans to scrap any specialist school funding, even though a re-orienting of such funds could secure subject excellence in science or languages, a goal of the White Paper that is promised without the levers to deliver it.

At the same time, schools will be anxious about funding until there is much more clarity over how funding is to be distributed, who gets the pupil premium and what will happen to the hundreds of thousands of pounds each currently receives for standards, specialism and capital. The money to help turn around weaker schools seems too modest to fulfil the ambitions. Simplicity may be a noble goal; its execution is rather messier. Blair's reforms crucially depended on sufficient targeted resources. There is some here: but is it enough?

Nevertheless, many of today's proposals should be welcomed. Collectively, they represent a matureness of approach that builds on much of the best of what has been developed over the last two decades rather than seeking to dismantle it.

This post also appears at Public Finance.

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