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.
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, acknowledged 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.
He defended the "ladder" of schools outlined by Education Secretary Estelle 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. We are increasing funding for all."
Workload and discipline hold the key to raising teacher morale and ending the staff shortage, Tony Blair believes. "The issues to do with behaviour are as important as anything else. If you get schools and classes with highly disruptive children, the impact is felt on the whole class, the teacher and the ability of the school to deliver."
He said that he wanted to tackle truancy, exclusions and assaults on teachers by parents.
"It is amazing to think that the recent truancy sweeps picked up 12,000 children, almost half of whom were with their parents. When these children go back into school they are behind and it is an additional pressure on schools to ensure that they catch up," he said.
The Government was already committed to full-time education for permanently excluded children in special units and was considering extending that to those who were temporarily excluded.
"Some schools in the most challenging circumstances end up taking excluded pupils from other schools. We have to do something about that."
Headteachers at a Downing Street seminar on pupil discipline later pressed home this point.
Asked why people did not want to be teachers, he said that it was "a tough profession". In London, with full employment and a booming housing market, some schools faced critical difficulties.
"It is a really serious problem to get staff into the most challenging schools." The Government was already putting more money into such schools and the Prime Minister accepted that their teachers had to be well rewarded. But he argued that we should not take too gloomy a view. "Teachers do feel under enormous pressure but there are many, many teachers who still consider it a wonderful profession and enjoy every minute of it."
The problems should not be exaggerated, he said. There were 20,000 more teachers than there were five years ago and the Government's incentives to bring in recruits for shortage subjects were paying dividends.
To the suggestion that the difficulty was not so much attracting people in the first place but keeping them in post, he responded: "But most of them stay. The vast majority of teachers I meet still believe it is a great vocation."
Leader, page 18
THE PRIME MINISTER ON...
...EXAMS AND TESTING
"There is a lot of pressure on children, probably more than before, but the amount of testing is necessary. I don't think we are testing children more than they do in Germany. We have to benchmark ourselves against the best education systems in the world."
"The perfection test is that every child should be educated to the full extent of their ability. The more realistic test is that the number of schools where you have between 20 and 30 per cent of pupils getting five good GCSEs is very small and those schools are on a ladder of improvement."
...EDUCATION FOR ITS OWN SAKE
"Of course I believe in education for its own sake. It is also crucial for the economic prosperity of the country. You need both arguments coming together."
...PROGRESS IN EDUCATION
"Sometimes you get the impression if you read parts of the press that education is generally going to the dogs. Levels of achievement in our schools are infinitely higher than they were 30 or 40 years ago under the old grammar schoolsecondary modern divide. " ...SELECTION AND COMPREHENSIVES
"That debate has been won in the sense that people think that if you divide everyone up into successes and failures at the age of 11 with 80 per cent going to secondary moderns and 20 per cent going to grammar schools, you end up with the problems of the British education system, educating an elite well and the rest poorly."