In a speech to stakeholders in Local Government, Secretary of State for Education and Skills Ruth Kelly spoke passionately of the progress that had been made since the victory over John Major's government.
Unsurprisingly, Kelly was keen to point out that things had moved forward. As she put it, "In 1997 our inheritance was not good. Standards and ambitions were low, provision of childcare was poor, teacher shortages were rife, with their status and pay depressed and too many buildings unfit for education in the 21st century."
Undoubtedly this was a parlous state of affairs, and there are few who would look back on the mid 1990's as a golden age for any public sector service. Ruth Kelly then went on to say: "we have made great progress; getting Sure Start centres (places where children under 5 years old and their families can receive seamless holistic integrated services and information, and where they can access help from multi-disciplinary teams of professionals) up and running in our most deprived areas, 90,000 more children a year leaving primary school with the expected level of English, record numbers going on from school to higher education or further training, and year on year improvements in standards, as demonstrated by this summer's results."
The Questions and The Future
Many would take issue with this assessment of the situation. For example, the debate rages regarding the "improvement in standards" mentioned, with the annual slanging match on the "dumbing down" of the "A" Levels and GCSEs. At the Association of Colleges (AoC) Conference in June, concerns were again raised about the quality and quantity of investment in the infrastructure and improving facilities. And the University and College Lecturer's Union (NATFHE) continue to press for the realisation of two year old pay deals and call for the retention of adult education lecturers in the face of cutbacks.
But the government are making changes to meet the demands for the future. This includes the recent Youth Green Paper, and also includes the recent statement from Ruth Kelly that a failing school will be given only a year to turn around its inadequacies. As she pointed out: "As David Bell says "Ofsted's evidence over the years would suggest that if no progress has been made after one year in a failing school, it is unlikely to happen at all." In a statement that all sides can always agree on, she put it bluntly: "Parents, children and communities deserve better."
And in meeting these failures in existing structures, Ruth Kelly urged her audience to support the newest initiative from the DfES. Speaking of the failings of conventional systems, she said; "This is why Academies are a key part of our reform agenda. They have a special role to play in transforming opportunities in our most deeply deprived areas."
However, as her interview with BBC Radio Five last week showed, there remains much scepticism as to whether the closing of schools and the emphasis on Skills Academies is a real solution; with the lack of success of the Middlesbrough project and the fears of increasing segregation by encouraging Faith Schools.
Calls for increases in funding are inevitable; it is difficult to conceive of a set of circumstances that would see all stakeholders feeling that enough money was being devoted to any public service. What must be recognised is that the current administration does indeed believe in the power and gift of education. What remains to be seen is how Academies, strict inspections and social inclusion in intention will work.
Skills Academies for the future? Tell us in the FE Blog"