All talk, no communication

The party conference season is the time for all good journalists, party dissidents and teachers to indulge in prudent cynicism. It is also not a bad time for more serious thinking about what is really going on behind the words spun at a wider audience.

I admit that our leaders don't always help us as much as they might - in their own interest as much as ours - to connect the elements of the grand design.

Take Blackpool last week. Take teachers, who were alternately charmed and hectored. David Blunkett promised support for a "precious asset" and a "first-rate job", but had no time for "sneering cynics" in the staffroom. Tony Blair moved early in his big speech from a general call for backbone to a specific challenge to "those in our schools". Here was a Government committed to Pounds 19 billion extra spending. "Let's be honest," the Prime Minister went on. "There are too few good state schools, too much tolerance of mediocrity, too little pursuit of excellence."

Like his Education Secretary, he was impatient with teachers still reluctant to change their ways in the face of far-reaching, energetic (and sometimes even resourced) education reforms, ambitious enough to embrace every child. "There is no greater injustice to inflict upon a child than poor education."

As for the teachers, waiting for the new money to trickle down into their classrooms, the crowding challenges of performance-related pay, targets, league tables and a deified chief inspector may still seem to add up to a repeat Tory government, rather than the teacher-friendly zone they had dreamed of. Even desirable smaller classes threaten practical problems to do with budgets, buildings and parental choice.

Whether from Blunkett, Blair or his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, policy or Budget promises all tend to degrade like Chinese whispers as they work their way down to the sharp end, and back again. A little lubricating oil and mutual understanding doesn't come amiss, especially as teacher recruitment goes into crisis.

For their part, I think many teachers might feel more inspired if they looked beyond immediate concerns to the social reforms promising just as great an effect on their and their pupils' lives.

A raft of projects directed at social exclusion is now in place, along with the ministerial fire-power and funding to give them credence. Sure Start, parenting support, childcare strategy, early- years services, action zones, intervention in critical housing estates, Welfare to Work - it all adds up to a multi-pronged attack on the disadvantage, disillusion and uncontrollable bad behaviour that wreck the life-chances of so many young people, and spread their effect to the schools they attend.

We all know that social background has as potent an effect as teacher effort on pupil behaviour and achievement. Social despair seemed to engulf more and more schools as a result of the failed market experiments of the Conservative Government.

Labour may be hitting the same standards triggers as its predecessor, but it is also recognising and tackling the social factor. Not all their policies may work, and much may depend on the economy, but if more children arrive at school ready to learn, and fewer teenagers make life hell in their schools, teachers should be able to meet their other challenges more cheerfully.

It is at this juncture that two independent school heads have been arguing in the press for the death of the comprehensive school. Martin Stephen, High Master of Manchester Grammar School, curiously cited teacher shortages as a main plank in his case for selection. Michael McMahon (who has also run an urban comprehensive) claimed more persuasively that most middle-class parents would rather pay for private schooling than abandon their children to the violent wreckers in a downtown comprehensive.

But since education is about learning, he concluded, selective state education was the only answer. Presumably that leaves all the unselected dumped among the yobbos, and swelling the ranks of the socially excluded.

The Government is braver in tackling disruptive social behaviour at its roots but I do wonder how far it is developing the logic of its crusade against exclusion to arrive back at the concept of the inclusive school. That word lay at the heart of the comprehensive ideal some 30 years ago. Tony Blair at Blackpool was hot in praise of the inclusive society, but there is still some ambivalence in his commitment to the inclusive comprehensive school.

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