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Blair says schools come first

PM brushes aside fears that education has slipped from the top of his Government's agenda. Judith Judd reports

Education remains the Government's "number one" priority, Tony Blair has told The TES.

As the Government prepares to announce its spending plans for the next three years, the Prime Minister made it clear that he will hold to his commitment to education as long as he is in power.

In an exclusive interview, he brushed aside fears that schools are slipping down his agenda. Many saw the decision in April's Budget to raise taxes to improve the health service as a sign that the Government had switched focus from schools to hospitals.

"I said the Budget would be about the health service but the spending review will be about education," Mr Blair said. "Education is and remains the absolute number one priority for the country because without a quality education system and an educated workforce, we cannot succeed economically."

He pointed to a real-terms increase of 20 per cent in spending since 1997. "If you look across the school system you can see evidence of considerable capital investment going into schools." But he added: "The catch-up we want to do can't last five years. We have to keep it up. It is a long-term programme."

And, while he believes further education is extremely important, "schools are top of the agenda".

"The key elements there are standards, behaviour and choice. We have to improve all three," he said.

Mr Blair, who says he has visited more schools than any previous premier, acknow-ledged that it was difficult for ministers to strike the right tone when talking about teachers, particularly as the media tended to pick up criticism, not praise. But he had no doubt about their duty to speak out about poor schools.

Last week, Education Secretary Estelle Morris angered teachers when she said there were some schools she would not "touch with a bargepole".

"I think what Estelle was saying was true in the sense that there are schools which are not doing well enough," he said. "The majority of teachers do a great job but there are areas of failure within the system that we can't simply turn a blind eye to."

He also countered Lord Puttnam's comment last week that teacher morale was only just recovering from the decision to renew the contract of Chris Woodhead, then chief inspector. "If we had dismissed him, that would have caused a far greater outcry."

He defended the "ladder" of schools outlined by Ms Morris with strugglers at the bottom of five categories and beacon and specialist schools at the top. "It is not a hierarchy. It is an escalator. It is not a case of penalising schools that are not specialising. We are increasing funding for all."

The Government has announced 25 new city academies as part of its plans to raise standards in London. Such excellent schools, he argued, would give people faith in state education. "One of the reasons city academies are important is that parents need to see centres of excellence so that they realise it's not true that there is nothing we can do with the state education system."

Full interview, 5

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