Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Why the government has picked the right target

Sir Simon Jenkins tells us that the plan to improve 638 secondary schools where fewer than 30% of pupils get five decent GCSEs is 'another failed-schools initiative' which confirms that "state education has grown worse in the last decade." Deborah Orr believes that the "threatened closure of hundreds of failing secondary schools [is] confirming that standards are not, in fact, rising like angels."

In fact, the reason why this programme will work - at least for the majority of the schools on the list - is because standards have risen in so many schools over the last ten years using a similar approach. And they have done so by combining the rigour of individual targets for pupils with the pressure of floor targets for schools not unlike that confirmed yesterday. Why else were half of schools - 1610 - at the below 30% level ten years ago, but only a fifth in that position today?

Moreover, the programme relies heavily on academies - which are already working in our inner cities; they always welcome informed commentators for a visit - and the leadership elements that have improved inner London standards through the London Challenge. Within schools, there is a lot of evidence that both leadership and teaching standards are significantly than they were ten or fifteen years ago (and that owes much to inspection, testing and tables introduced by the Conservatives as well as Labour's more targeted approaches). The idea that it is unreasonable to expect an inner city school to reach a target such as this is negated by the many that already do so, including a majority of secondary modern schools.

But because the newspapers largely ignore what has worked well - and pundits too rarely visit inner city schools - this is rarely reported. Of course, there are aspects of the system where there is still more to do - and many schools that have benefited from significant revenue improvements do need the government's school building programme to progress beyond the inner cities rather more quickly.

So I have some sympathy with Alice Miles on this point. But I have rather less with her example of a local secondary school looking a bit tatty being an indictment of the Labour government. Perhaps the head forgot to mention to her that like every secondary school he now has a £113,000 a year devolved capital budget to spend largely as he and his governors choose, as well as a significantly higher devolution of revenue funds; the devolved capital budget was precisely £0 when the Tories were in power.

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