Gordon Brown

The Blair legacy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 June, 2007, 12:00am

Tony Blair famously won power on a pledge that New Labour's priorities in government would be 'education, education, education'. It was an agenda that appealed to the swing voters in middle England and an acknowledgement that in the age of knowledge economies the schools agenda had to take centre stage.

But what legacy will he leave to his successor, Gordon Brown, when he hands over the keys to 10 Downing Street on Wednesday?

'Overall, Blair has achieved a great deal,' said Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. 'When he came into power we were haemorrhaging teachers from the profession. Now there are 40,000 more teachers and their salaries have gone up by 45 per cent.'

Mr Blair's early mantra was that the government would focus on 'standards not structures' in education. At school, children face standard tests at seven, 11 and 14, in addition to GCSEs at 16. Labour added baseline assessments for four-years-olds and created value-added league tables to publicise schools' impact on pupils' performance and brought in measures to tackle 'failing schools'.

The result was a ratcheting up of the pressure on schools. In addition, a new emphasis was put on giving pupils the basic skills of reading and maths, with compulsory literacy and numeracy hours in primary schools.

The improvements in the test results of 11-year-olds suggest the strategy has worked, but key targets Labour set itself were missed. In 1997, 63 per cent of pupils reached expected levels in English, 62 per cent in maths and 69 per cent in science. By 2006 this had jumped to 79 per cent in English, 76 per cent in maths and 87 per cent in science.

Critics say the emphasis on tests has resulted in a dumbing down of education. Earlier this month the General Teaching Council called for a 'fundamental and urgent review of the testing regime' on the grounds that standards were no longer rising, pupils were being caused undue stress and increasing numbers were dropping out of school because they were bored by drilling. Ten-year-olds now spend on average four hours a week preparing for tests.

'The national strategies have led to a loss of innovation and stifled creativity,' Ms Bousted said.

'The government's emphasis on testing and league tables has forced teachers to teach to the test,' added Steve Snotty, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. 'This narrows children's education and limits the time available for ensuring breadth of development.'

From the start Mr Blair was motivated not just by a desire to raise standards but also tackle the problem of social inequity in Britain's schools. International comparative tests show Britain has greater inequality of achievement by socio-economic class compared with other advanced countries.

The government began to focus harder in the second half of his tenure on how this could be tackled at secondary school level by encouraging more competition between schools for pupils, more choice for parents, and more scope for school leaders to take responsibility for transforming standards in their own schools.

About 2,800 secondary schools were turned into specialist schools, offering a focus on a particular strand of subjects, such as arts, languages or IT.

In an attempt to address underachievement in the metropolitan areas, Mr Blair introduced city academies - similar to the Conservative's City Technology Colleges - and expanded their number to 400. Academies are state-funded schools independent of local authority control, with additional support from business sponsors.

The aim was to inject some dynamism from the business sector - a typical Blair strategy - in an attempt to tackle failing schools.

But there is little evidence that they are offering a very different curriculum or teaching conditions to comprehensive schools, which are now also able to free themselves from local authority control by seeking trust status, and they have not existed long enough to measure their true impact.

'Many academies are getting rid of pupils they feel will not enhance the school's academic record, thus distorting the reality of the school's performance,' Mr Snotty said. 'Untold millions have been poured into these institutions, yet the taxpayer cannot call them to account. They are not answerable to anyone and their governing bodies are dominated by the sponsor's nominees.'

Ms Bousted believes the choice agenda is misleading because 'popular schools will never be able to meet unlimited demand'. One of Mr Blair's achievements was to raise the status of teachers, not only by increasing their pay, but by creating a social partnership between unions, employers and the government to reform the workforce. This has led to a cut in teachers' hours and the introduction of preparation and assessment time into their timetable.

There has been a 68 per cent increase in per pupil funding and a massive school building programme has been launched to turn dilapidated schools into modern buildings 'fit for purpose'.

One of Mr Blair's serious failings was the rejection of the recommendations in the Tomlinson report to introduce a broader curriculum at 14-19 and create a single exam system for academic and vocational subjects.

At university level, Mr Blair courted controversy by abolishing fixed-rate maintenance grants in 1998, forcing students to pay tuition fees of up to #1,250 (HK$19,500) a year up front and take out loans to cover fees and living expenses.

In 2004 upfront fees were replaced with top-up tuition fees and universities were allowed to set their rate of up to #3,000, increasing the burden of loans on students further. Means-tested grants removed the cost for those from socially disadvantaged families.

The plan was to generate an extra #1billion in funding and offered a sop to those who thought free higher education was unfair because less well-paid workers would be forking out the bill for students to go on and get better-paid jobs - the 'why should the dustman pay for the doctor' principle.

But many Labour MPs opposed the measure, fearing it would create two-tier universities with low-income families opting for the cheaper ones, and according to a new documentary publicised this week, Mr Blair feared he would lose the vote unless Mr Brown instructed his followers to back the measure when it came up for a knife-edge vote in Parliament.

Jeroen Huisman, professor of higher education management at Bath University's International Centre for Higher Education, said research showed the introduction of loans and top-up fees had back-fired because, despite means-tested grants being available, they deterred the young people Labour most wanted to attract, those from families where no previous members had been to university.

Two newly-released studies show that meeting the traditional Labour goal in education, of achieving equality of opportunity, and the more Blairite goal of equality of achievement, will remain a serious challenge under Mr Brown's leadership.

London University research revealed this month that by the age of three children from poorer families were a full year behind their middle-class peers in social and educational development.

Figures released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service showed that the percentage of students gaining a place at university who came from the four poorest socio-economic groups fell between 2004 and 2005, from 25.61 per cent to 24.72 per cent. This was despite the efforts of a government programme to widen participation of students from the poorest families, that began in 2001.

Nevertheless, Michael Barber, former head of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit at the Department for Education and Employment (1997-2001) believes Mr Blair's achievement has been to give education a prominence in government decision-making that it never had before and that results had improved.

'Primary schools were transformed through the literacy and numeracy strategies in the first term and GCSE and A-levels improved in the second,' he said.

Education secretary Alan Johnson signalled this week that for Mr Brown the support of science at university level would be a key concern and he might reorganise the Department for Education and Skills to achieve that.

'In terms of the emphasis on the importance of higher education and the importance of science and innovation Gordon has already made it clear it's a top priority,' Mr Johnson told a meeting at the University of Westminster last week.

The challenge for Mr Brown in schools is to ensure that standards can be pushed higher still without teaching to the test, while at the same time offering the kind of rounded education that will enable British school and university leavers to compete in the knowledge economy, where the ability to learn and apply new skills is vital.

'We believe we would have a better education system if all pupils were taught a much broader and more balance curriculum,' Ms Bousted said.

For Mr Sinnott the pledge to tackle inequality of provision and opportunity will remain paramount.

'Gordon Brown has promised to raise the level of spending in state schools to that of the private sector,' he said. 'It is a promise the NUT will fight to ensure he honours.'