Blair warns teachers not to resist reforms;Labour Conference

2nd October 1998 at 01:00
Modernisation and attacking failure were high on the agenda in Blackpool. Frances Rafferty and Nicolas Barnard heard how the Government plans to execute its hard-line policies on teaching and funding in the pursuit of excellence.

TONY BLAIR sent out a tough message to teachers this week, saying there was a shortage of good state schools and too little pursuit of excellence.

In his keynote speech to the Labour party conference, the Prime Minister outlined his deal for teachers. He said he had secured pound;19 billion in extra education spending, but in return teachers will need to show improved performance.

"If a headteacher rises to the challenge of turning round a failing school, why shouldn't they earn pound;60,000 to pound;70,000 a year? But equally if they cannot run the school properly, they shouldn't be running the school at all."

He said that if schools failed they would be closed down and re-opened with a new head. If local authorities failed, the Government would send in rescue teams - public or private.

The profession was warned against resisting what Mr Blair called the most fundamental reform of teaching since state education began. This autumn's Green Paper will spell out the Government's intention to modernise the profession: the pound;19bn comes with strings attached.

In a wide-ranging speech setting out Labour's achievements during 18 months in office and its challenges for the future, Mr Blair also announced plans for the first-ever Government consultation paper on the family, including action on teenage pregnancies and domestic violence.

Classroom unions said the speech was an inspirational one for the party and voters, but would leave the majority of teachers feeling excluded. Mr Blair wants to act on evidence from the Office for Standards in Education, which identified weak leadership in one in 10 secondary schools and one in six primary schools.

"Some heads need support, for others removal is the sensible option," said a Government source. The Government wants schools to use new procedures which allow heads who are feeling burnt out to step down to a less demanding job without loss of pension. But the National Association of Head Teachers said the process was flawed and had been barely used in the year since it was introduced.

David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, also told teachers' leaders, during a fringe meeting, that he was fed up with the "miserable sods" who resisted change. Although his remarks were made good-naturedly, they were in earnest. He said: "There is always a cynic sitting behind a desk somewhere who will put the mockers on it in the staffroom.

"Every time you make an announcement there are those who are so rooted in cynicism they oppose what you say." Even when the Government gave every school pound;1,000 to buy books there were still people moaning because they said they were not given enough time to spend it, he said.

And sceptics who had poured cold water on his summer literacy scheme were called "a miserable bunch of cynics". David Hart, general secretary of the NAHT, supported "most" of the Prime Minister's comments on heads, but Mr Blair had failed to acknowledge the vast majority of heads needed better pay - not just those turning round failing schools. His comments on the "tolerance of mediocrity" were unhelpful.

The National Union of Teachers said Mr Blair had missed an opportunity to praise teachers as well as criticise them.

And NASUWT general secretary Nigel de Gruchy said teachers had delivered their part of the bargain - higher standards. It was now time for the Government to deliver its side. Labour councillor and deputy chair of the Local Government Association's education committee David Wilcox picked up on Mr Blair's threat to take education out of the hands of failing local authorities. "It's an unequivocal message to local authorities and the many councillors that are here in Blackpool," he said.

During a fringe meeting, Mr Blunkett was told by the unions' leaders that he still needed to win the trust of teachers if he wanted them to co-operate with his reforms. It was a similar message to that delivered to Mr Blunkett a year ago. NUT leader Doug McAvoy said re-appointing Chris Woodhead as chief inspector was the worst thing Mr Blunkett could have done for teacher morale.

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