State Schools - New Labour and the Conservative Legacy
Clyde Chitty and John Dunford (eds), 1999
168pp paperback £unknown ISBN 071304034-3
Review by Derek Gillard
© copyright Derek Gillard 2001
In my article New Government - New Values? in the autumn 1997 issue of Forum, I sought to summarise the values which had underpinned eighteen years of Tory education policy and to try to evaluate those of the newly-elected Labour Government.
I was particularly interested, therefore, to discover that, half way through the Labour government's first term, Clyde Chitty and John Dunford have now edited a book which seeks to evaluate its educational policies and achievements in the light of the promises made in Labour's election manifesto and in the light of the legacy left to them after eighteen years of Tory rule.
State Schools - New Labour and the Conservative Legacy is a thoroughly readable account of the effects of government education policies on schools and teachers.
A palpable tide of hope and expectation swept the country as it became clear that Labour would win the general election in May 1997. Hope that the years of Tory sleaze and mismanagement were, at long last, coming to an end. And expectation that a new government, with fresh - and ethical - policies would really make a difference. I remember going into Oxford on the morning after the election. The sun was shining, people were smiling and greeting one another. It was as though a huge black cloud had been lifted from the nation.
It was no different in education. After eighteen years of constant denigration of state schools and teachers by politicians and the tabloid press, here was the opportunity for a fresh start. Tony Blair's declaration that his government's priorities would be 'education, education, education' led teachers to believe that his was a government which would value state schools and would work with teachers, treating them as professionals.
In their introduction, Clyde Chitty and John Dunford summarise the policies of the Tory years. The assisted places scheme, one of the first acts of Thatcher's administration in 1979, immediately gave the message that '"bright" children had to be taken out of the state system and educated privately' (p.2). Keith Joseph's views on the place of the market in education were to have a significant influence on Thatcher. The role of the local education authorities, some of whom were characterised as the 'loony left', was to be diminished. ILEA was abolished. There was a huge shift of power to the centre, especially in the 1988 Education Act.
Yet state schools were actually very successful during this period. In 1979 only 25 per cent of sixteen year olds passed at least 5 GCEs, whereas by 1997 the equivalent figure was 45 per cent getting GCSE grades A-C. The proportion of eighteen year olds passing two or more A Levels actually doubled in the same period from 14 per cent to 28 per cent.
Labour came to power with a huge agenda. David Blunkett and his team of ministers were required to produce policies on standards of achievement, class size, the structure of schools, pre-school provision, children with special educational needs and the role of local education authorities. 'They also had to face the thorny issues, avoided by the previous Government, arising from the grave financial difficulties into which both universities and further education colleges had fallen.'
The new government was greeted with high hopes and a huge reservoir of goodwill, particularly among teachers. It quickly announced the abolition of nursery vouchers and the assisted places scheme. But it was regrettable, to say the least, that it confirmed the continued employment of Chris Woodhead at Ofsted and perhaps even more damaging that Stephen Byers should see fit to 'name and shame' the eighteen 'worst performing schools'.
Chitty and Dunford have assembled a series of essays which examine the situation mainly from the perspective of the head teacher but from a variety of viewpoints.
The changing pressures on schools are examined in two chapters. Eric Spear, Head of Staplehurst County Primary School, Tonbridge, reports from a primary perspective, while Peter Downes, Head of Hinchingbrooke School, Huntingdon for fourteen years, relates the secondary experience. His was one of the first schools to undertake local management.
Clyde Chitty questions New Labour's commitment to the comprehensive ideal:
Only when the Labour Government understands the importance of creating a single unified system of fully comprehensive secondary schools under local democratic control and without selective enclaves, will the country have an education system of which we can be truly proud. The divisions inherited from 18 years of Conservative rule have to be viewed as serious obstacles to the provision of a high-quality education for all pupils (p.32).John Dunford asks whether we are any nearer rationalisation of the 14-19 curriculum. 'There is still a long road to coherence and it will take much greater courage than has yet been shown by the government if we are to travel sufficiently far down this road' (p.59).
Pat Collings, for thirteen years Head of Sinfin Community School in Derby, reviews the effects of government policies on schools in deprived areas. She suggests that Tory governments saw such schools as 'part of the problem rather than the key to a solution' and is positive about the new government's attempts to 'focus on learning' rather than on 'structure and governance' (p.72).
Roger Seckington was Principal of three Leicestershire Community Colleges. In his chapter he looks at the effects of government policy on Community Schools and lifelong learning and expresses concerns about 'the mantra of cost-effectiveness and an apparent unreadiness to consider meeting local needs' (p.84).
In their report on Educational Provision by the Inner London Education Authority, HMI described ILEA as 'a caring and generous authority with considerable analytical powers to identify problems, the scale of which is, in some cases, unique in this country' (HMI 1980:120). In A View from London, Tamsyn Imison, head of Hampstead School, paints a depressing picture of a successful and popular education authority being ground down by government attacks, budget capping and industrial strife and finally abolished.
In his chapter on the relationship between teachers and New Labour, Martin Lawn, Reader in Education at Westhill College Birmingham, suggests that the nature of professionalism has changed, though we still use the same language. He pleads for 'a combination of stakeholding and a freedom (and responsibility) to make meaning in work' to counterbalance the 'insistent managerial return to limited notions of product quality and improvement targets' (p.110).
John Dunford reviews the changes to school inspection under Ofsted. He concludes:
School improvement occurs mainly through the actions of those who work in the schools themselves and, if inspection is to make the maximum contribution to school improvement, it must be integrated with processes of self-review and evaluation ... the Labour Government may have had higher priorities for its first Education Acts than the reform of Ofsted, but it must be tackled in the longer term (p.123).The rise of parent power, one of the most significant features of the Tory period, is reviewed by Robert Godber, head of Wath-upon-Dearne Comprehensive School, Rotherham. 'If access to information is indeed power, then parents were hugely empowered by 18 years of Conservative Government' (p.132). However, those who benefited most were 'middle class, those with expectation and ambition, and with the capacity to collate and use the information available' (p.132). There is no evidence that Labour ministers intend to dismantle any of these powers. 'The Labour Government sees parents as natural allies in its drive for improved performance by schools' (p.135).
Heather Du Quesnay, Executive Director of Education for the London Borough of Lambeth, looks at the changing nature of the triangular relationship in the government of education (central government, local government, schools) and, in particular, at the removal of power from the local education authorities. Once again, the new government seems set to continue this trend. In the White Paper Excellence in schools (DfEE 1997), for example, the role suggested for LEAs 'bears some echoes of the previous Government's policy in its emphasis upon "intervention in inverse proportion to success"' (p.143).
In their concluding chapter, Clyde Chitty and John Dunford acknowledge that the principle of a common curriculum was widely supported and, although the National Curriculum is in many ways flawed and unmanageable, they, like many others, are concerned that Labour is continuing the Tory process of dismantling it 'on an ad hoc, piecemeal basis without any sense of contributing to a broad overall strategy or design' (p.151). And at post-16, Labour 'shows little inclination to modify radically the Dearing approach' (p.153).
My main concern about the direction of education policy under the Labour Government is in its continuation of the Tory attitude to teachers which undermines their professionalism. Indeed, I would argue that where the Tories told teachers what to teach, we now have a Labour Government telling them how to teach it. No wonder teacher recruitment is in crisis - the job is seen as little more than 'delivering' a centrally imposed curriculum. As Chitty and Dunford observe, 'After years of pointless conflict, a Labour victory should have heralded a new and exhilarating era of cooperation and consensus' (p.153-4). When I go into schools as a supply teacher these days, I don't sense much feeling of exhilaration - just exhaustion.
State Schools gives an accurate account of the effects of government policies on schools, teachers and students. I hope it will be read by those at all levels in the education system who have the power to change things for the better.