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Labour offers a new deal to overworked teachers

As the Labour party in Scotland puts the finishing touches to its major policy document on education, Tony Blair has returned from the Far East more determined than ever to present Labour as the party of rising standards and higher expectations. He is also offering a new partnership with the teaching profession.

Speaking to The TES, Mr Blair said that his visit had shown that excellence for all was an abiding theme of educational policy. It was particularly so in Korea where 80 per cent of the school population achieve university entrance standards. "Twenty-five years ago, they had a lower literacy level than we did. It is simply not true that 'more means worse'," he said.

The Labour leader has confirmed several emerging strands of policy south of the border, such as the commitments to create "advanced skills" teachers to keep the best teachers in the classroom, "associate" teachers to support classroom staff, and a general teaching council to raise standards in the profession - all developments that have a genesis in Scotland.

Helen Liddell, the party's Scottish education spokesman, said her Scottish policy document, likely to surface early next month in the run-up to the annual conference in March, would place the child at the heart of Labour's reforms.

Many of the English recommendations were based on Scottish experience.

Responding to staffroom concern over workload, Mr Blair emphasised that teachers should be "freed from the routine bureaucracy and chores" which take them away from the classroom. That was why the party was proposing to create "associate" staff, drawn from business, ethnic communities and the arts, to work under the direction of teachers.

Mr Blair, however, has not retreated from his party's pledge to close schools that are said to be failing pupils, despite the stern criticism he met recently for appearing to back the Tories' condemnation of teaching standards in England.

Headteachers have also been warned that they will be held accountable for standards. Labour intends to set up a national register of those competent to be heads, Mr Blair confirmed.

In a carrot and stick approach to reform, the Labour leader reiterated the party's promise to phase out the assisted places scheme and transfer money to cutting class sizes in the state sector. No infant class will have more than 30 pupils. "The research shows that smaller classes are of benefit to children, " Mr Blair said.

Labour will also set targets to make a nursery place available for every three-year-old and four-year-old while developing childcare options to meet the demands of working parents.

Mr Blair contends that Labour has moved the educational debate away from structures and grant-maintained schools towards an emphasis on performance and achievement in the 25,000 state schools responsible for educating seven million children.

Excellence for Everyone, the party's policy paper published last month, was the first official recognition that the idea of school improvement, launched 20 years ago, had come of age. The document had "shamed" the Government into adopting Labour ideas such as home-school contracts and homework guidelines.

Mr Blair said: "The power of Labour's document lies in the fact that the pressure for it and the constructive engagement with its key ideas come from below. Go into most schools or colleges in the country and you will see some of the characteristics that make up a flourishing and successful school."

Turning to one of Labour's big ideas, Mr Blair re-emphasised the guarantee to connect every school and college to the information superhighway.

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