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Dropping the cudgels

IF a week is a long time in politics, a year is a whole new era judging by the Prime Minister's annual speech to new heads. Last year he challenged "the culture of excuses". This year he delivered his most lavish public praise for the profession ever.

Generous and unequivocal in his thanks to teachers and heads for raising standards, Tony Blair frankly marvelled that teachers in the lowest-performing authorities had raised the achievements of 11-year-olds in literacy and numeracy above the average of just four years ago. That, he said, was a record anyone in the public sector would be proud of. And he went on to call for a new "partnership" between schools and government in an "education crusade".

Can it be that Labour has finally learned that to make real progress in schools it needs the education service behind it? Being led rather than driven? That talented teachers and graduates have a wide choice of alternative careers and need to be inspired to join the profession and appreciated to keep them there? When Tony Blair earlier promised to balance pressure with support, he needed to pledge more than a greater share of national income. He needed also to demostrate his own moral support for all those struggling to raise standards against formidable odds.

This speech is not an isolated gesture. The departure of Chris Woodhead was a clear sign of changing attitudes at Number 10. The sudden volte face on training salaries earlier this year had already shown they were taking teacher recruitment seriously, which David Blunkett admitted this week had been approaching "meltdown".

As the reports on the success of the literacy and numeracy strategies testify, test results can be driven up by concerted pressure and support. What Labour has achieved must rank as the two most ambitious professional development projects ever, resulting in measured gains unparalleled in the UK. But as Tony Blair clearly recognised in his speech, they cannot go on doing it without a quarter of a million more teachers in the next decade. Nor can they achieve the important things in schools that tests do not measure without teachers' goodwill, enthusiasm and commitment.

David Blunkett poured billions more pounds into schools this week. All are welcome. But what could really make the difference is if the penny has finally dropped.

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