Election 97: Labour will really make a difference

As a former teacher, a father with boys in university, tertiary college and a comprehensive school, and as a representative of one of the most deprived communities in Britain, I cannot help but be passionate about education.

I understand very well the deep-seated scepticism which many teachers exhibit about politics and politicians. Some of that was very clearly expressed in The TES survey last week. I understand the demoralisation which has been caused within the teaching profession by denigration and constant change. What I can't understand is those who fear that a new government would not really make a difference.

As Tony Blair made clear again on Sunday, our policies are designed specifically to put education and skills at the very top of the political, economic and social agenda. We are giving education the greatest priority it has received from any government at any time, and we are doing so in the knowledge that those at the sharp end will be the ones who will have to deliver a world-class education service.

For me, education was the crucial first-footing on the ladder of achievement.

Having spent six years at evening class and on day-release in order to get into university, and having experienced both exhilaration and disappointm ent in my own education, I am determined that opportunity for every child, high standards and excellence for all, must be the key objective. That is why - if we win the general election - a new Labour government will join in partnership with teachers, parents and pupils to deliver our promises for schools.

Because we hope and want to win, we are only making the promises that we know we can fulfil. We are avoiding grand gestures so that we can provide a real chance to begin the long process of restoring our education system. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have made clear that as we get more people back to work, thus reducing welfare bills, the money saved will go to education. A higher proportion of our national income will thus go to education.

Our programme will provide the foundation from a first Parliament to go on to further election victories, and to build, through consensus and stability, a successful service which believes in itself, which is proud of itself, and which therefore attracts others to want to join it.

I use the term education service because that is what it is. It is not isolated institutions or individuals competing in a market, but co-operation. It is about spreading best practice, sharing excellence, learning from each other - and Labour will use information technology, not only to improve learning in the classroom, but also to spread that good practice.

Labour's programme stands in marked contrast to that of the Government, which is more obsessed with structures than standards, and which is preparing more extremist proposals for a fifth term. And, because we mean to win, it stands in contrast to the vague and rosy warm words of the Liberal Democrats. If you know you're not going to win, you can say and promise whatever you like!

So let us look at the contrast. Labour is committed to free nursery education for all four-year-olds, to setting targets for three-year-olds and to initiating a programme of family learning from the moment a child is born, spelt out in our paper, Early Excellence. We will end the voucher scheme and devote all the money to providing that crucial start in life which is so much a foundation for building in the future.

We will lower all class sizes to 30 or under for five, six and seven-year-olds by phasing out the Assisted Places Scheme. We accept that class size makes a difference, particularly in the early years, and we will make this start on the process of reducing class sizes. Over 1.2 million children are currently in classes of over 30 in primary education alone - including 500,000 at key stage 1 - and if the Tories won a fifth term there would be another half-million children in such classes by the year 2000. Labour really would make a difference.

We have pledged to make a real start on tackling the #163;3billion backlog in the repair and maintenance of schools by an imaginative publicprivate partnership which would transform the environment in which teachers teach and pupils learn. The partnership would enable schools to be repaired up front, thus saving on costly crisis repairs later on. We accept that the decaying of our buildings, the leaking roofs and the drab classrooms make a difference to the way in which we can deliver higher standards.

We have strongly opposed the Government's moves to increase selection and will instead promote the Family of Schools - partnership between schools, parents and education authorities to give every child the opportunity to succeed.

Resources must compensate for, not excuse, economic and social deprivation. That means supporting schools in the most deprived areas in meeting their targets - particularly those to boost literacy - and development plans to lift expectations so that we can believe in every child and bring out their full potential. As set out in our paper, Excellence for Everyone, we have a series of measures that will help teachers to do that job.

We will establish a general teaching council, we will institute a teachers' centre to support teachers' professional development as part of our university for industry. We will use lottery funds to help teachers master new technology and spread good practice through a database as part of the standards and effectiveness unit at the Department for Education and Employment so that we can learn from each other.

We will review the operation of the Office for Standards in Education, recognising that we do need an independent inspectorate, but that we must provide advice and support, as well as pressure. We will expect OFSTED to work in partnership with local education authorities and teachers to ensure that post-inspection support is available to bring about improvement. Identifying a school's weaknesses must be accompanied by the support needed to rectify them.

This is also why we will reform the way data is published to provide value added comparisons of how well schools are improving, as well as exam results. Information should help schools raise standards rather than pitting schools and colleges against each other.

It is a scandal that one in 12 of our youngsters gains no qualification at all by the time they leave school. We have set out in our paper, Aiming Higher, how we would bridge the divide between vocational and academic education, bringing about a new unified pathway post-14, and encouraging the under-achievers as well as the high-flyers.

We would give real hope to young people in school, and therefore to the chance of teachers to help them learn, by using the windfall levy on the excess profits of the privatised utilities, to offer all 16 to 25-year-olds education, training and employment. This is a pledge to reverse a crisis for 600,000 young men and women, a quarter of a million of whom have had no education provision or employment in the previous six months.

And in our paper, Lifelong Learning, we spelt out how we would open up access to further and higher education, sort out the muddle and confusion of the loans system and provide quality access and accountability. We have also spelt out how we would transform adult learning by developing individual learning accounts for those in work. A million targeted individuals would benefit from an initial #163;150 each to match their own contribution of #163;25 to their account.

Ours is an agenda for change. It is a realistic programme that has been costed, and it will make a difference to students, to parents and communities, and to the teachers, technicians and secretarial staff who make the education service tick.

David Blunkett MP is shadow education and employment secretary

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