Is Current Government Education Policy Failing the Most Disadvantaged? an Incisive Analysis from Dr Mary Bousted, General Secretary, Association of Teachers and Lecturers

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When Tony Blair entered No. 10 Downing Street in 1997 he declared that his first priority would be 'education, education, education.' As we enter the final stretch of Blair's premiership it is timely to evaluate the achievements within New Labour's key policy priority.

New Labour's approach to education policy making can be characterised as 'carrot' and 'stick'.

The 'carrot' is greatly increased spending. Some comparisons will serve: in 1997 the total UK budget for education and training was [pounds sterling]36 billion; in 2004/05 it is [pounds sterling]65 billion and it will rise again to [pounds sterling]79 billion in 2007/08. Capital investment in buildings, technology and computers for both primary and secondary schools was just [pounds sterling]100 per year per pupil in 1997, last year it was [pounds sterling]650 and will rise by 2010 to at least [pounds sterling]1,000 per year per pupil.

The 'stick' is the drive to raise standards for all, including those groups who have traditionally not achieved within the state education system and, in particular, working class students. David Blunkett, Blair's first education secretary, famously offended teachers throughout the country when he declared that students in inner city schools failed because their teachers had low expectations. Whilst the insult was gratuitous (and at a stroke did away with the goodwill and high expectations with which teachers had greeted the 1997 Labour election victory), there was a serious policy point being made. New Labour had their sights targeted on schools as the key instrument of social reform. Whatever the social and economic circumstances of the pupils, the school's prime purpose was to give all its students, from whatever background, the basic skills to enable them to compete and succeed in the labour market.

The 'new deal' for education was essentially simple--increased funding was provided, increased performance was demanded.

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So has the equation been balanced? Has higher investment resulted in higher standards of achievement? If we look at the national data on test standards the answer would be yes. In 1997 45% of the pupil cohort achieved 5 or more GCSEs. In 2004 this figure has risen to 53%. But this is not the whole story. Although test scores have risen, too many young people rush to leave compulsory schooling and refuse to take part in further education. Last year Britain came 25th out of the 29 OECD countries for staying-on rates post 16. When asked, young people say that their education prepared them for passing tests, but not for life after school. When you consider that the average 16 year old taking eight GCSEs will endure 40 external tests, and that out of a six-term GCSE course, two terms will have been spent in revision for those tests, it becomes apparent that the balance between teaching and testing is completely out of kilter. …