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Food for thought on the party stall

Opening his speech last week at London University's Institute of Education, Tony Blair confessed to a feeling of deja vu. This was the very place where he received the result making him leader of the Labour party. "I can't imagine why leadership elections come to mind," he smirked.

If the implosion of the Conservative party overshadowed Labour's launch of Diversity and Excellence, its document on the future of grant-maintained schools, and indeed Mr Blair's speech, he was not going to worry. He believes that the real victor of the Conservative leadership election in the long run will be the Labour party.

And if that is the case, Realising our True Potential, the lecture setting out his party's education stall, could be an important landmark if Mr Blair succeeds in his ambition to become Prime Minister.

The audience, while not necessarily politically hostile, was pedagogically sensitive. And the well-researched speech, heavily influenced by the work of Professor Michael Barber of Keele University and of David Miliband, formerly of the Institute of Public Policy Research and now a member of Mr Blair's office, struck the right note while giving plenty of food for thought.

The main thrust was raising standards (the details were revealed in last week's TES, together with an article based on the speech by Tony Blair) and the promotion of a new "dogma-free" approach using both pressure and support to improve school performance.

Part of his plans include creating three new categories of teacher: an associate grade (perhaps someone from industry or with other experience outside education); the expert grade rewarded for classroom excellence; and the professor teacher who would be granted a term's sabbatical to disseminate good classroom practice.

The reaction from the teaching unions was mixed. While they were encouraged by Mr Blair's concentration on the importance of what happens in the classroom on standards of education, they were sceptical about the proposed grades.

There have been several attempts in the past to create the role of "super teacher". A senior teacher grade created by the teachers' pay and conditions negotiation body the Burnham Committee failed because it merely led to another tier of management.

The failure of schools to award excellence points already within the present pay structure is seen as evidence that the new grades will not work. But Michael Barber said he saw the expert grade as a post that would advertised, rather than a bolt-on commendation.

"Schools should be able to use these pedagogic wizards as repositories of expertise who can act as mentors to other teachers or promote different teaching strategies within the school.

"The professor grade is about giving a teacher the opportunity to disseminate classroom practice either by visiting different schools, holding seminars or writing papers. Twenty a term may not be a great number, but I'm sure the impact would be symbolically important, allowing the profession to celebrate innovative practice and it could be influential."

Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, wondered how it could work in practice, with local management making it difficult to flit from school to school. Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said it was an idea worth investigating, but added: "If it is just a little bone to be thrown for thousands of teachers to fight over then it will be firmly rejected. "

Mr Smith was impressed by Mr Blair's speech: "It was thoughtful, well researched and courageous. It offered a lot of challenges and raised some very serious questions."

He was also impressed by Mr Blair's imaginative views on how information technology will be able to revolutionise teacher training and classroom practice. The only problem was that Mr Blair was not going to talk about money and whether Ramsbottom Primary School will be able to plug into the Internet if the Labour party takes office is another matter.

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