Best laid plans, by Conor Ryan

31 Jan 08
The new Department for Children, Schools and Families, headed by secretary of state Ed Balls, is nothing if not ambitious, with a ten-year plan that encompasses all aspects of children's lives. But Conor Ryan detects a fault line or two in the strategy

01 February 2008

The new Department for Children, Schools and Families, headed by secretary of state Ed Balls, is nothing if not ambitious, with a ten-year plan that encompasses all aspects of children's lives. But Conor Ryan detects a fault line or two in the strategy

Gordon Brown's real passion has always been children's policy. So it was no surprise when his chief lieutenant, Ed Balls, was given the job of bringing school-age education together with children's social policy in the new Department for Children, Schools and Families. And just before Christmas, the prime minister and the children's secretary launched their policy bible: the ten-year Children's Plan.

There is little that the plan omits, from building new playgrounds to a 'root-and-branch' shake-up in the primary school curriculum. There are proposals to curb internet pornography and children's TV advertising. Every local authority will have two parenting advisers. Some £90m will build extra facilities for disabled children to take short breaks, while more money will be set aside to improve teaching for children with special educational needs. Children's writing skills are to be strengthened. Parents are exhorted to read with their children. Accidents are to be reduced. Mental health services are being reviewed. Drugs, alcohol and sex education will be improved. Children will have personal tutors. Some pupil referral units for disruptive pupils will be superseded by vocational 'studio schools'. And the commitment to raising the education leaving age to 18 is reaffirmed.

Balls believes his plan is long overdue. 'The plan addresses the needs of all children whatever their age, social background or academic potential,' he says. And he has the backing of children's campaigners.

Children's commissioner Sir Al Aynsley-Green says: 'Growing up can be tough, particularly with the diverse influences and mixed messages children and young people are told about lifestyles, healthy eating and safe things to do. I commend the focus in the plan on young people who get into trouble.'

But others think the plan too unfocused. Shadow children's secretary Michael Gove says: 'How can the secretary of state credibly say that he is clearing away the clutter and empowering professionals, when he is sticking his fingers into everything and generating gloop on an industrial scale?'

And amid the swathe of initiatives – many simply extending existing schemes – lie real policy tensions. Although the plan has some new ideas, and is backed by £1bn of previously unallocated money from the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review, it is more about trying to marry two competing policy approaches. The tension inherent in this process might make it harder to raise school standards and eliminate child poverty than ministers imagine.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says: 'If schools are to be placed at the core of social reform for children, this places tremendous expectations on schools and their leaders.' His concern was echoed by 56% of school heads, who thought it 'unacceptable' that schools should have more of a social services role, according to a Guardian survey last month.

The first approach, the 'standards agenda', aims to improve academic results for all children. It was first promoted by David Blunkett, as education secretary in Labour's first term. And while Blunkett and Tony Blair famously declared that they wanted 'standards, not structures', their agenda came to embrace both. Labour not only continued with the testing, inspection and performance tables created by the Conservatives, but set demanding targets for literacy and numeracy, greatly expanded specialist schools and created city academies.

This agenda is represented most forcefully in the DCSF by junior schools minister Lord Adonis. The former Blair adviser is best known for developing city academies and is also a strong advocate of traditional primary school teaching methods. He strongly backed former senior Ofsted inspector Sir Jim Rose, when he recommended traditional 'synthetic' phonics as the basis for teaching reading in 2005.

Adonis has maintained influence under Brown, ensuring the PM's support for structural reform. Blair's commitment to 400 academies was reaffirmed in the Children's Plan and Balls announced that 310 trust schools had already been created by December. The Adonis influence can also be seen in wider use of the US-inspired Teach First programme, which gets the best graduates to teach in inner-city schools, and in a Finnish-style programme to encourage teachers to gain masters' degrees.

The second approach, the 'children's agenda', has long been championed by the Treasury. It is more focused on social policy than education, and has tended to regard what happens outside schools as being at least as important as what happens within them.

Hence Sure Start, the programme for poorer pre-school children and their families, which is creating a network of 3,000 children's centres providing childcare, health services and job advice under one roof. The Children's Plan extends free childcare places to disadvantaged two-year-olds. 'Extended schools' – state schools offering wider facilities and longer opening hours – help parents back to work, keep kids off the streets after hours, and provide much-needed nutrition before lessons through breakfast clubs.

This approach also involves schools teaching life skills – including financial, drugs and sex education – as much as traditional subjects. More youth facilities – the phrase 'places to go and things to do' has become civil service jargon – are being provided, with young people deciding how to allocate local budgets. At the same time, Blair's 'Respect' agenda with its emphasis on curbing antisocial behaviour, has been ditched.

Brown and Balls see this whole agenda, alongside tax credits, as essential to ending relative child poverty. The government has reiterated its goal of halving child poverty by 2010 and eliminating it by 2020, despite a recent slowdown in progress. A new cross-departmental unit, involving the DCSF and the Department for Work and Pensions, will co-ordinate their efforts.

Some of the biggest structural changes in recent years have attempted to bring the standards and children's agendas together. In 2003, Charles Clarke, as education secretary, published Every Child Matters in response to the report into the death of Victoria Climbié, an eight-year-old who died after horrific abuse and social services failings. From that paper flowed the merging of local children's social services and education departments into children's trusts, and a growing responsibility within the national education department for all aspects of children's lives.

Ofsted expanded from its original role as the schools' inspectorate to monitoring children's services, childcare and further education. The DCSF's creation last summer extended this process. But it has been an uneasy merger, not least because of the different philosophical outlooks of education and social services professionals. Some felt that the five goals of Every Child Matters, by placing 'being healthy' and 'staying safe' ahead of achievement, seemed to suggest a hierarchy in which the standards agenda would become less important.

'Hard cases make bad law,' says Professor Alan Smithers, of Buckingham University, referring to Climbié. 'The empty repetition of the five points has got in the way of serious thinking.'

However, the government has been stung by several recent international reports. First, a report from the United Nations Children's Fund last February put the UK bottom of an international league table for children's 'wellbeing' – a term that weighted relative income and friendships higher than test results. Then, later in 2007, two major international studies – the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study and the Programme for International Student Assessment suggested that English pupils' performance in literacy, maths and science had fallen in global league tables since 2000, although on some scores they remained above the international average. Even though one reason for the fall – at least on the assessment programme – was the addition of new countries to the survey, the figures reflected something that ministers had feared: progress had stalled after 2000, and other countries were advancing at Britain's expense.

Two independent measures highlight this. National tests at age 11 show that between 1995 and 2000, the proportion of pupils achieving expected standards rose from 49% to 75% in English and from 45% to 72% in maths, but have risen by only five points in each subject since then. And Ofsted analysis suggests that teaching improved significantly up to 2000, but has not got much better since – from 43% of lessons for 7 to 11-year-olds deemed 'good or better' in 1996 to 72% in 2000 and 74% in 2005, after which comparable data is not available, as tougher criteria were introduced.

Blair's frustration with these stalled results led to an overhaul of the standards agenda in 2006. Rose's phonics review heralded changes in the literacy and numeracy strategies, with more intensive teaching of reading at an earlier age and greater emphasis on basic multiplication tables in maths. Those reforms are only taking effect this year.

Brown and Balls have already announced remedial programmes in reading and maths; the Children's Plan proposes 'every child a writer' to boost writing skills. The new 'root-and-branch' review of the primary curriculum, also led by Rose, is unlikely to change this direction of travel, but should free more space for the 'three Rs' – reversing changes made by Clarke in 2003 – and allow more space for languages to be taught from the age of seven. Balls also wants to provide more playtime for infants.

Indeed, much of what is proposed on standards is an extension of what had already been set in train before Blair stepped down. Plans to increase parental involvement through more regular school reports on their children's progress will make use of the internet to implement requirements set out in the 2006 Education Act. And the idea of replacing the national tests in English and maths at 11 and 14 with progress tests was announced by Alan Johnson in January 2007.

Pupils could take the new 50-minute tests, which would still be nationally set and marked, when they were ready; some schools took part in pre-Christmas trials. Just like music students, they would then progress to the next level. Over a third of 11-year-olds already gets a Level Five (the standard for 14-year olds), so the new tests would potentially be more stretching. But the government will continue to publish primary performance tables, crediting schools with the highest level achieved by each pupil.

Yet while the standards agenda is given new impetus in the Children's Plan, the sheer scope of the social policy that is expected to accompany these proposals has caused real concern. Some worry that by expecting schools and heads to do too much, they might not do a lot of it sufficiently well. 'My fear is that in the generalisation of schools into centres for children's social services, the focus on teaching and learning will be lost,' says Smithers.

However, Balls insists that the plan is essential if the gap between poorer and better-off children is to be narrowed. 'Children only spend 14% of their time in school so it's common sense – as well as being what every teacher tells us – that what happens outside school hours has a huge impact on children's education and their progress,' he says.

And there is a wider political challenge: the plan might be a good example of Brown's belief in 'long-term solutions', with transformation planned by 2020. But Labour MPs worried about their seats in the next general election, due by 2010, will wonder how much difference parents will have noticed by then.

Conor Ryan, a former senior education adviser to Tony Blair and David Blunkett, is editing a new book on 14-19 education, to be published shortly by the Social Market Foundation


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