Key Blair legacy: better state schools

Britain's departing prime minister gets generally high marks for reforms and better testing results.

In a busy primary school in southwest London, a secretary looks on in bemusement as a parent hauls in a box holding an old computer and screen.

"It's the unwanted computer I phoned about," he tells her. "You do still want it?" "I'm sorry," she says. "I didn't realize it was so old. We only really want the latest stuff these days."

Ten years ago, the school would have hungrily accepted such charity. Now, it is using the latest in computers, interactive whiteboards, and data projectors.

The information-technology overhaul in British state schools is part of a transformation launched by Tony Blair a decade ago. Declaring his priority on coming to office in 1997 to be "education, education, education," Mr. Blair set about trying to raise standards, give parents greater choice, upgrade schools, and even out the enormous differences between the best and worst classrooms.

This week, as he steps down, Blair probably gets better marks for education reform than for any other area of domestic policy, with many academics, teachers, and experts speaking positively of his efforts.

"Clearly, the state sector has improved enormously in certain areas," says Anthony Seldon, a head teacher and biographer of Blair. "Results have improved, the ability to attract teachers has improved, the amount spent in classrooms has improved, school spending has gone up enormously.

"But if the benchmark is the independent sector," he adds, "it has also expanded and done relatively better in that time than the state sector."

In 1997, many of Britain's 20,000-odd state schools were at a low ebb. Underfunded for a generation, buildings were often derelict. Technology was clunky, if it existed. Some children studied in portable classrooms. Test results showed that primary school children were far less able in math and English than previously thought.

Blair decided primary schools needed not just more teachers but more classroom assistants to help struggling children. Secondary schools needed freedom to offer parents real choice. Universities, he ultimately decided, needed to be able to charge fees so as to compete globally.

As a result, between 1997 and 2006, funding for state schools rose from £21.4 billion to £34.4 billion (about $68 billion) a year, according to government data. Spending on infrastructure more than doubled, to £3.0 billion.

And results improved. The percentage of primary school children hitting targets for math, reading, and writing has increased from about 80 percent in 1997 to closer to 90 percent. The number of 14-year-olds attaining the required level for English, math, and science has risen from about 60 percent in 1997 to well above 70 percent. The critical qualifications of GCSE (a test that most 16-year-olds take) and A-levels (required for university admission) have risen inexorably, too.

Teacher numbers also rose: In the past six years, the teacher-student ratio in secondary schools has dropped from 1 to 14.5 to 1 to 11.7. "Standards have risen dramatically and that has been his main achievement," says Sarah Tough, a former math teacher at a London secondary school and now a researcher for the left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research. She says some teachers might complain that teaching has become all about standards and tests. But, she adds, "There has been a massive increase in other staff, which takes a lot of the administrative tasks off teachers."

Yet, though Blair is praised for raising standards, he faces criticism on four fronts: results continue to vary tremendously from school to school, targets and tests put children under undue pressure, the system for deciding who goes to which school is unfair, and fee-paying schools are still seen as better than state ones.

Moreover, Gordon Brown, who took over as Labour Party leader Sunday, said last week that plenty remained to be done to make Britain the "education nation."

Malcolm Trobe, head of a secondary school in southern England, singles out the culture of tests as particularly counterproductive. "Our youngsters are assessed at 7, 11, 14, 16, 17, and 18," he says. "It doesn't do them any good and stresses them out."

Alan Smithers, a professor of education at Buckingham University, says drilling pupils so that they test well at age 7 and 11 may have led to a dip in performance when they get to secondary school, because they can't apply the knowledge.

He adds that the negative legacy of the Blair years are higher truancy rates and higher numbers of young adults who are not in education, employment, or training at all. "If you're not going to do well in tests, school is a very unpleasant place," he says, "so you might as well vote with your feet."

That's if you get into your school of choice. Admissions rules are famously inscrutable and convoluted.

Blair's secondary-school reforms give some schools control over admissions, but not others. Some can style themselves as "specialist" in certain disciplines. Others will be oversubscribed because of good results. Some may give preference to pupils from church-going families.

Those with few assets tend to draw the least able pupils, and go from bad to worse. Blair tried to help failing schools by letting them become "academies" kickstarted by up to £25 million of state aid and more money from a benefactor. These schools, too, can select their own pupils.

The city of Brighton recently decided the fairest way to allot places at schools that varied in performance by lottery. Parents were furious. "There is no easy way to resolve the admissions system," says Trobe. "Previously, admission was controlled by the local authority. Now certain schools own admissions, so there is no controlling body."

With higher education, the challenge was to rescue a parlous financial situation by allowing universities to charge £3,000 a year in tuition – a highly controversial step.

Critics said poor students would be marginalized and graduates would be saddled with large debt. Many supporters said £3,000 was too low. The professed aspiration was to get 50 percent of young people into universities, but the numbers fell after fees were introduced last year.

Yet many experts say Blair was right to decide that the market should decide who goes to university. "It means the shape of higher education will reflect the wishes of young people to invest in themselves," says Professor Smithers. "Instead of having the government decide the appropriate size of higher education, it will depend on the decisions of young people."

Smithers praises Blair's efforts but adds: "The other side of the coin is that schools have been turned into exam factories, and that means that children have been truanting; some of the broader aspects of education haven't been dealt with; and parents still take the view that if they can afford it, independent schools are a better bet than state schools."

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