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Peace dividend promised

Teachers must stop attacking chief inspector Chris Woodhead and abandon their battle against educational reforms, one of the Government's most powerful civil servants has warned.

In return the profession would get a new deal, including substantial Government support for teachers and renewed powers for local authorities. The education department's status would rise to that of the Home Office and the Foreign Office.

Michael Bichard, permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Employment, took the opportunity of his first public speech under the new policy of civil service openness to tell an audience of teachers they should cash in on the national mood of optimism.

But, he said, that means setting aside their differences with such colourful figures as Mr Woodhead.

"Frankly, to personalise in this way an issue as important as standards in schools does the profession no credit at all," he said.

"It is easy to be cynical or sceptical but I sense that is not the mood of the country at the moment. The country will not easily forgive those who offer only cynicism or who use this debate as a battlefield to promote their personal vendettas."

His comments contrast with remarks by the Prince of Wales who attacked "a failed system" in a BBC interview with Sir David Frost.

Mr Bichard told the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' education conference in York last weekend: "I do not applaud the tendency to pillory teachers as a breed because many of them are doing an excellent job and most of them want to." In a wide-ranging speech Mr Bichard also signalled the return of substantial powers for local education authorities. LEAs, he said, would be key players in detecting schools in trouble, and could take them over much earlier.

"It is essential that weaknesses are addressed before they become even more acute. We therefore need to consider a system of early warnings for schools whereby the LEA would contact the governing body, setting out its grounds for concern and requesting an action plan by a specific deadline," he said.

"Where the governing body fails to submit an adequate plan or to implement it, the LEA would be able to withdraw budgetary delegation or appoint additional governors. "

In return for greater professional co-operation, Mr Bichard promised to place education at the heart of government. "I want the department to be a leading department of state because education and employment have in the past suffered for not having that status."

He called on the public to give teachers the praise they deserve. "It has long seemed to me bizarre that the people who celebrate their success most ostentatiously are luvvies from the world of the media and entertainment - worthy, no doubt, but hardly the key to our future success.

"We need to set aside our restraint and celebrate our best teachers and our best schools much more imaginatively. "

His message - which was given greater weight by his apolitical status - was immediately backed up by the head of the Teacher Training Agency, Anthea Millett, who told the conference that "shame and blame will get us nowhere". But, she added: "A new start needs to involve us all in being more accepting of constructive criticism, being more open to change by being willing to rethink what we do."

Mr Bichard's speech was welcomed by David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, whose members recently called for Mr Woodhead to be sacked. "I think Michael Bichard's approach is absolutely right. It is a breath of fresh air, although from time to time we will not like official pronouncements, and we will have to say so.

"Chris Woodhead is a problem, has been a problem and will continue to be a problem every time he makes a statement which people believe to be prejudiced and damaging to morale. But we mustn't allow one personality to hijack the agenda."

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