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The next term's challenge

Peter Smith (above left) and David Triesman (above right) explain the need for teachers at all levels to present a united front when a new government is elected

Assume that the pundits are right and that Labour is to be re-elected with a possibly reduced but nonetheless commanding majority. What should David Blunkett's successor do?

In his valedictory off-piste observations, Blunkett has admitted that he failed to take teachers with him in pushing through reform and also failed to appreciate just how low teacher morale had sunk. He was right to castigate himself.

The new Education Secretary would be foolish to ignore his warning. A crucial challenge for a second-term Labour government will be to succeed where Blunkett failed. If, as is widely predicted, the ministerial mantle falls on Stephen Byers' talented, well-tailored shoulders, he would do well to reflect on the sour taste his naming and shaming approach as an education minister left in the mouths of the majority of highly committed, hard-working teachers.

Whoever succeeds Blunkett, a key challenge will not just be about making teaching an attractive career to potential teachers - although with half the current workforce over the age of 50 that is important enough. Just as vital will be the task of re-engaging the commitment of the current generation of teachers. To put it bluntly, they are sick of constant change, unremitting criticism and chronic overwork. They are even more sick of populist politicians of any party who will play to any tabloid newspaper gallery willing to give them an audience.

It makes no sense either for the mandarins of the Department for Education and Employment to write off teachers as whingeing, recidivist old lags who have failed to see the light. The harsh and crucial truth is that the education service will rely upon a generation of teachers who have dedicated their working lives to schools and colleges but are displaying all the signs of corporate burn-out.

The public debate tends to focus almost exclusively on schools. There is a tacit assumption that the higher education sector - staffed by other-worldly saintly fools happy to live on stale bread and intimations of scholarly immortality - will shift for itself. Nonsense.

School teachers have legitimate objections to the way in which they have been exploited year after year over pay and conditions, but their further and higher education colleagues have been treated even more scandalously. In terms of job security, bureaucratic overload and career development opportunities, they have fared much worse.

The principal reason that our organisations, the Association o Teachers and Lecturers and the Association of University Teachers, have entered into a partnership agreement is stunningly simple.

If we really are to have a world-class education service, we need to face up to the fact that lifelong learning needs to be more than a cant phrase which slithers effortlessly off any bureaucrat's tongue. It has to mean that we really are serious about a seamless educational continuum which starts from pre-school education and moves through the school, further education and university sectors. There is no point in lobbying for that total quality service in bite-sized chunks. The smaller the chunks, the easier for politicians and their advisers to spit them out.

We believe that the issues are too important to be lost in the undergrowth of union in-fighting. We are strongly committed to the concept that the education service needs a coherent, credible and united voice. It is time to put an end to bickering and present an educational voice which is articulate, professional and realistic. Joined-up government implies the need for joined-up and modernised trade unionism.

It would be churlish to deny that New Labour has not made a start, but it would be naive to assume that there is not a lot more to do. Part of the challenge will be to establish a cross-party consensus.

Suppose that the polling gurus are wrong and we end up with either a Conservative government with a wafer-thin majority or, more likely, a Tory opposition large enough to give a re-elected Labour government a hard run for its money. The issues do not change.

The Conservatives have been absolutely right to identify the key issue in stark terms. Where does central government control end and local discretion kick in?

Even those who believe that the party's "free schools"policy makes no sense will think that New Labour needs to clarify its position on the role of local authorities.

New Labour's public-sector reforms imply that bids from local education authorities are no more than an option and that they need to compete with the private-sector bids. Labour rushes in where Tories feared to tread ...

And how will the Lib Dems fare in the election? Will they emerge as the most credible opposition party? At least they can take credit for having spotted first that education and what the nation invests in it is an issue central to voter concern.

Whatever the outcome of the election, education will certainly not lurk in the political shadows.

Peter Smith is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. David Triesman is general secretary of the Association of University Teachers.

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