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Blunkett sets his sights on 'lab' schools

High-performing schools could be turned into the equivalent of teaching hospitals, with "master teachers" demonstrating good classroom practice to students from nearby teacher training institutions under a Labour government.

The schools would liaise with teacher training departments to bring theory and practice closer together. The idea is based on "laboratory schools" in the United States where some universities run their own schools and teachers are members of the faculty.

David Blunkett, the shadow education secretary, has said he wants a drastic overhaul of teacher training. He has also attacked some teacher training institutions for being hide-bound by dogma.

The Labour education team has been in contact with John Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Laboratory Schools, in the US, who has provided it with information on the schemes. It has also been advised by Professor David Reynolds, who believes British schools have much to learn from the whole-class teaching methods used in Pacific Rim countries.

"The aim of these proposals is to try to I forge greater links between theory and practice by having these things closer together," said Professor Reynolds, who is head of Newcastle University's International School Effectiveness Research Project and a member of Labour's Literacy Task Force.

"The idea is to give students the educational equivalent of a clinical experience."

Labour is trying to shed any association with the "progressive" teaching methods that are regularly criticised by government spokesmen, and Mr Blunkett's position on teacher training is now very close to that of the official Teacher Training Agency, with whom Labour has been meeting on a regular basis.

Labour's proposals for awarding "advanced skills" or "master" status to high-performing teachers match TTA plans for a new career progression embracing "subject leader" and "expert teacher" qualifications.

The party even seems willing to endorse the agency's controversial funding formula which sets training departments in competition with each other for student numbers.

The TTA's aim has been, in part, to penalise high-spending and low-performing institutions. This week, Labour said any savings could be used for projects such as laboratory schools.

The TTA has been concerned to link spending on educational research with practical help for teachers. Stephen Hillier, secretary to the TTA, said: "There is a massive amount of money spent on educational research at present - some Pounds 50-Pounds 60 million. Very much more of that should be focused on classroom-based research."

The university training departments have given the proposals for laboratory schools a cautious welcome. Ian Kane, chair of the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers, said that further change could be beneficial - but only if it built on the recent advances in school-based training.

Schools still need help, he said, in moving students from the level of competence towards exceptional performance.

"We have already invested four years in developing partnerships with schools, and it's worked very well. A number of schools have emerged which are models of their kind.

"As long as this initiative is viewed as a development of, rather than an alternative to, the progress we have made, then I don't think we'd have any problem with it."

There are 114 laboratory schools in the US. Students are able to arrange their studies around learning theory, followed by watching teachers in class and taking part in lessons. While many of them charge for tuition, Labour has no plans to introduce fees.

The Labour party will publish its paper on teacher training in the new year.

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