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Strike a new note

Tony Blair's twentieth anniversary lecture at Ruskin College has not caused such a shock to the system as Jim Callaghan's original broadside on education. When Mr Callaghan as Prime Minister in 1976 launched his blunt attack on complacency, under-achievement and lack of concern for the views of employers and parents, it came as a bolt from the blue. Teachers' leaders reacted defensively to this intrusion into their secret garden, as Mr Blair reminded us at Oxford on Monday.

Twenty years on, the walls are bulldozed and the gardens trampled, and the Labour leader's clarion call on education is more likely to provoke depression in teachers than defensiveness. Reports of what Mr Blair had to say, yet again, about failing schools and incompetent teachers will not have lifted hearts. This was not what teachers wanted to hear from a man who may hold their fate (or at least their careers) in his hand.

This negative effect is due to the cold calculations of politics. Both ministers and their opposition shadows are concerned to speak to the whole electorate at this stage, rather than sections of it. And athough the tough talk about poor teaching only takes a few lines of a wide-ranging policy statement, they know, and we know, that those are the soundbites that will stick.

This is not only a pity, but seriously counter-productive if a great educational enterprise is really to take off in the new millennium under a new Labour government, as anticipated in Mr Blair's more eloquent passages. He recognises that change cannot flow from radical manifestos, without appropriate government action and "400,000 teachers working constructively together in 25,000 schools". But, setting out the three components of successful education reform as good policy, the engagement of the teaching profession and strong leadership from the centre, he devotes little space to the second.

Isn't it time to strike a new balance in public attitudes, which is positive enough to command teachers' active engagement in improvement, and strengthens their power to deal themselves with their own tailenders? The promise of a General Teaching Council and promotion to Advanced Skills status in the classroom provides the outward trappings of recognition, but it needs a more public display of confidence to give them heart.

Nothing is going to be achieved unless teachers are part of it. That means they have to be inspired, consulted, cossetted, trusted, and involved in reform from the bottom up, as they are in most of the exemplary projects, to which Mr Blair and his education spokesman David Blunkett look for ideas. "Ownership" may not be the word that spin-doctors are searching for at this season, but there is nothing like it for developing self-belief, enthusiasm and stiffer standards.

One of the most serious shortages affecting schools is the lack of creative thinking, either about curriculum or teaching and learning styles. Heads and teachers have been so crushed by the weight of the national curriculum, so unnerved by the threats of inspection, and so wrong-footed by TV tales from the Pacific Rim, that few are willing now to put their heads above the parapet and come up with their own ideas.

This is a sad state of affairs which is bad for teachers and bad for education. It takes a confident and vigorous profession to provide high standards and the intellectual energy to harness technological change to the advantage of schoolchildren, and it takes a strong one to deal with its own failures. Yet that is far the most effective way.

Mr Blair has recognised the key role that local educational authority networks can play through early intervention to forestall school decline. Some of those will need to sharpen up their act too if they are to operate effectively, but for every Kirklees there are others who have good working alternatives to takeover by the neighbours. No doubt Mr Blair and his advisers are talking to them all. But maybe they need to talk more now to ordinary teachers. And talk them up more too.

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