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Blair stresses tough and tender policy

Ian Nash reports on the Labour leader's vow to make education the passion of his party. Tony Blair's pledge to create a new education agenda for the 21st century is set to build on his now famous promise to be "tough on crime - tough on the causes of crime".

The new focus on individual "rights and duties" set out in Labour's new statement of aims and values, which replaces Clause 4 of the party's constitution, is now to be applied to education, which Mr Blair has already promised to make "the passion" of a future Labour government.

He indicated his determination to take a tough yet tender approach in his speech last weekend to the conference at the Methodist Central Hall in London which voted to scrap the 75-year-old "nationalisation" clause in favour of a more general mission statement.

Claiming the Tories had overdone the pressure and underdone the support, he said: "New Labour means an education system that both supports our schools and puts pressure on them to achieve," he said.

He went out of his way to support the firm line taken by his education spokesman David Blunkett, who had vowed to close failing schools and reopen them with new staff.

"What we need is David Blunkett's crusade for change and achievement. When we say we will not tolerate failing schools, that is not right-wing, but sticking up for the children of working-class people for whom education is the only hope of a better future. David may have taken some flak, but I believe he has shown courage."

Blunkett was attacked over his proposals by extreme left-wingers at one of the most acrimonious annual conferences of the National Union of Teachers in recent years.

But as well as the hard line, Mr Blair promised support for initiatives including nursery education for all, raising standards, reforming A-levels, opening up access to higher education and reforming out-of-date skills training.

Draft proposals have already been published on many issues, but Mr Blair set in place at the conference a strategy framework for the run-up to the next election. It will be fleshed out in three papers between June and December. They will cover everything from nursery education and standards in primary schools to the future of further and higher education.

His promises will prove neither easy nor cheap, particularly his commitment to "ensuring no one is shut out of higher education through poverty". Labour still has to tackle the complex and expensive question of funding, and the future of student loans.

A green paper on the future of FHE is the last scheduled for publication and there are doubts within some quarters of the Labour party that it will be ready by December.

The first paper in June will cover issues including partnerships between schools and education authorities. It will spell out the future of grant-maintained schools under a Labour government, power-sharing with parents, home-school partnerships and contracts between parents and teachers.

Contracts will relate to individual pupil achievements and performance. Policy on these and other issues including improvements in teacher and headteacher appraisal will be published in a second paper on "standards" this autumn.

All schools would be set targets which would be based on national targets and local goals in line with their past performance. They would shape new performance tables to replace the current league tables. The model favoured by Labour is the Birmingham scheme under Tim Brighouse, the chief education officer. Primary schools are set a range of targets for literacy and numeracy, rather than a single goal.

Mr Blair has moved on to educational ground very similar to that which Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, was hoping to occupy until she was let down by the rest of the Cabinet over money - such as the cash to fund the teachers' pay rise. The path to HE expansion, as proposed by Mr Blair, was partly eased this week as the National Union of Students abandoned its long-standing opposition to students bearing some of the costs of student maintenance, and the Association of University Teachers hinted that it may reconsider its opposition to a graduate tax.

But before the next general election, there are wider issues Labour must tackle, including what it wants education authorities to do, the balance of power with central government, and the role of a General Teaching Council.

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