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Education is still my number one priority

Tony Blair has had a difficult week defending his record on the health service. But where does his pledge to spend more on hospitals leave schools, asked editor Caroline St John-Brooks.

TONY Blair is running late. It's been a tough week so far, playing all those bouncers bowled by Lord Winston - normally a close ally - about the National Health Service's inability to cope with a flu epidemic.

As the Prime Minister welcomes me into his study in Downing Street, health has suddenly become public issue number one. That morning, The Times front-page headline read: "Pay soars as Blair 'panics' over NHS". Rapid pledges (later downgraded to "aspirations") have been made to spend an extra pound;11 billion on health; funding is to be raised to European levels; nurses are promised an inflation-busting pay rise.

Meanwhile, teachers across the country are thinking: what about us? Tony Blair, famously, is the first Prime Minister to put education at the top of his policy agenda. Amid all this political turmoil over health, will it stay there? Most definitely, he assures me. "This is simply the most important national purpose for us, in the first few years of the 21st century: to raise our education standards significantly."

This affable man, sitting in his shirt-sleeves drinking a mug of tea, has immense power over teachers' working lives. So how does he see the future of English education?

He starts with the "sense of urgency" he feels about improving the system. "For every school that is not functioning as well as it could do, for every child that is deprived of an education, that is a huge injustice. They are not getting the start in life they need."

For Blair, education is both a social liberator and an economic imperative. It is clear, as he warms to his theme, that education policy and economic policy are intertwined.

"If we don't have a first-class well-educated workforce, then we can't compete," he says. "It is the single biggest driver of increased productivity. There is no way we can compete with low-wage economies in the developing world. But we can compete on the basis of skill and aptitude and knowledge. I don't personally believe we've yet really understood the importance of education. We're at the beginning of understanding it."

But he is optimistic that, given time, we can overcome the stark differences of income and social class which have made us one of the most polarised socieities in the developed world.

"The whole purpose of what we're doing," he says, "is to raise up the standards within the system, so that children, even if they are from poor family backgrounds and living in inner cities where there's not much opportunity around, get the chance through decent education to do well. And, you know, there are the jobs there for people if we run the economy efficiently; but if people don't have the skill levels, they can't do them. But I really think that if we set it as our national purpose and task, we can do it."

But the teachers who will have to carry out this mammoth task, I suggest, too often feel unappreciated. They are constantly being exhorted to raise their game, but are given precious little credit for what they are actually achieving.

"I understand that," says Mr Blair earnestly. "I always say that the vast majority of teachers do a superb job. I say this every time I make a speech on this - but it never gets reported. Because I then go on to say, however, we do need to raise standards of performance in schools that aren't doing well enough."

This is the part that makes an impact, I tell him. Many teachers feel that the first part of his message - the praise - is merely lip service, to be got out of the way before he comes to the "teacher-bashing" section - the part he really means. The Prime Minister looks surprised and rather hurt.

He presses on regardless; but later, when I suggest that his more robust attempts to get his message across do not always take account of the fact that most primary teachers are women - highly conscientious and likely to take criticism personally - he returns to the subject.

Mr Blair says that he hopes teachers don't automatically dismiss his congratulatory words- as they are sincerely meant. He adds: "For example, you'd never in 1,000 years have got the primary schools to raise literacy and numeracy in this way without dedicated women teachers. And I'm the first one to pay tribute to that."

He does, though, exhibit a key characteristic of his government - difficulty in believing that anyone can genuinely disagree with his policies. Opposition is put down to misunderstanding, lack of communication - or the fact that the policy has not been fully explained. When I refer to teachers' scepticism on performance-

related pay, he replies: "The best way to convince people is to explain the policy properly." All teachers, he emphasises, will get the annual pay award. Some will get a PRP bonus on top. This policy constitutes "a step change in the way teachers are paid".

The "step changes" he has in mind add up to a new way of looking at education. First, investment in education presupposes public accountability. With regard to the pound;750 million set aside for the new pay structure, he says: "If I'm going to make this big extra commitment - three-quarters of a billion pounds extra, just devoted to this - I have to be able to turn round to the public and say: 'But it's geared to standards of performance'. If we weren't able to do that, my view is that we wouldn't have the public consent for making this pay award."

Secondly, he envisages a much more open profession, where bright, energetic and skilled practitioners can rise swiftly to the rank of headteacher. Openings for them will be freed up, by expanding the scheme which allows older heads who have run out of steam to take early retirement.

"The notion is to try and develop a cadre of people who will come on and take these positions," says Blair, "because the head matters enormously in a school." He believes that there are many such people already in the system who have not yet emerged. "We need to be able to pay them more, particularly when they're taking challenging courses at a college of leadership which puts a serious emphasis on training people to lead; because leadership's something you learn as well as something you're gifted with".

He sees the National College for School Leadership as playing a crucial role in a reformed system. "We're looking for an outstanding headteacher to head it up," he says. When I remark that, after rejecting the previous short-list, it had begun to look as if the Government had given up on educators, and was casting its net wider towards business and industry, he says emphatically: "No, our desire is to have a really really good headteacher - someone who's got some practical experience."

The third key element in this modernised education system is a rethinking of what the term "comprehensive" might mean. Blair is not keen on a return to selection. As he says: "The idea of comprehensive education was to get away from dividing up kids as successes and failures at the age of 11 and splitting them up in this very rigid way - 20 per cent successes, and 80 per cent ending up in the second division of education." But turning our backs on that mistaken type of division should not, he insists, result in a system which offers all children precisely the same type of schooling.

"What people must switch from is thinking the term 'comprehensive' means 'one size fits all'. Whereas in fact it's about making sure that you have the full range of abilities catered for within the system. That's what is comprehensive about it. What is not comprehensive is that you treat all people in exactly the same way - in other words, it is not a uniform system."

He must know that this rationale for specialist schools will not persuade everyone in education of their value - but it is in tune with his themes of flexibility and diversity, and he seems convinced that it will deliver higher standards to the poor, as well as the affluent.

"I think there was a sense in which people felt, for a time, that it was difficult to see how some of these children were ever going to get a decent start in life. It was a shame, a tragedy, but there was nothing you could do about it."

Now, he says, people do believe such problems can be solved - and they want results. "Part of the sense of urgency I feel is that I've got the British public out there wanting these changes very quickly."

As I leave on this rousing note, I pass John Stevens, the incoming Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, waiting to see the Prime Minister. The television news that evening is full of the latest figures showing that criminal violence rose last year by 5 per cent. The next day, The Times front-page headline says:

"Blair at bay after leap in violent crime." A tough week.

Blair on LEAs and privatisation

If we've got local authorities not doing the job, we've got to find ways of making sure the job is done differently.

"I don't believe we want the whole of the system privatised. But I do believe: one, that it's necessary to give greater freedom to schools to manage their own affairs, particularly when they're managing them successfully. Two, that for the local education authorities, their role has got to be refocused around standards, and intervention where it's necessary. And three, they've got to passport through the money that they're given from the Government to the schools.

"As an extra dimension of, as it were, the pressure on them to perform well, we've got to have the option of using the private sector where the local education system is simply failing. And we will gain an expertise in that, and develop a group of providers that are able to come in from outside. What counts is what works."

... on the unions

"Not all the unions are in the same position on a lot of these questions, but I worry from time to time that there may be too small a group of activists who are driving the agenda - and it can end up with a situation where they're not connecting with the public in a way that I think would be helpful. I guess government and teachers' unions will always have their disagreements. But I would like people to recognise that we're trying to do the best for the pupils, in the end."

... on performance-related pay

"I really do understand, when teachers say 'Look, we have a great collegiate atmosphere in our school, and we work in partnership together, and isn't this a divisive system?' My answer to this is that headteachers already have to make judgments about performance at every stage in a school, and really if everybody understood what everybody else was getting paid in precise terms, you'd find quite a lot of differences there already.

"I just hope that we can work with the teaching profession so they understand that we are trying to do this in a way that does not disrupt that collegiate sense of partnership, that isn't divisive, that does allow us to get that step change in pay that we recognise teachers need - because I want to get to a position when teachers and headteachers are regarded in the community as people of real standing."

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