Blair's beacons are right on the button

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
"A good speech for education" was the initial consensus in the afterglow of Tony Blair's first set piece as Prime Minister at the Labour party conference this week in Brighton, writes Frances Rafferty.

At a fringe meeting organised by three of the teacher unions just hours after Mr Blair left the stage, David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, described his agenda as one he could sign up to.

The Prime Minister had pressed the right buttons - there will be more money to rebuild crumbling schools, children will be given computers, Section 11 money to fund teachers of pupils whose first language is not English will be restored, and a target of an extra 500,000 pupils going on to further and higher education has been set.

After his introduction, and some knockabout comments at the expense of former Conservative ministers, it was an education story that was used to highlight one of the new Government's successes. Mr Blair quoted a letter from 11-year- old Emma O'Brien praising the summer literacy schemes: "We've had fun. All of us have made new friends. I think you and Parliament have done the right thing. I have got a better education."

His tough stance on standards was managed without being too harsh to teachers. "People say my job's pressurised," he said. "So is teaching. And don't let anybody think that we are tough on bad teaching because we don't value teachers. We are tough on bad teachers precisely because we do value good teachers."

Nicknamed the beacon speech by some newspaper sketch-writers, because the word was used eight times during the hour - as in, "Our education system - a beacon to the world" - it was a heady mixture of moral exhortation and ambitious promises. But an important question remains on how the promise to increase student numbers in further and higher education will be met.

"Our goal," he said, "is to make Britain the best educated and skilled country in the world; a nation not of a few talents, but of all the talents. Every single part of our school system must be modernised to achieve it." He presented the task ahead by stating Britain's position in the world education league: 42nd. "This is the scandalous legacy not just of 18 years of Tory government but of a country too often content to educate the elite and ignore education for all," he said.

He promised that by 2002 every one of Britain's schools will have computers complete with software and connected to the superhighway and with phone bills costing Pounds 1 per pupil. But there was no indication in the speech of how the training of computer-shy teachers would be paid for, although lottery cash has previously been mentioned.

He told delegates: "There will be new measures to tackle truancy and disruptive children, new homework requirements. Support them. When a school disciplines a child, back the teacher."

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, later told David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, that his leader had at last expressed in the correct proportions the pressure-and-support strategy the Government has advocated. Mr Blair had been attacked for being negative about teachers in his speech last month to the Trades Union Congress. "I found the words of the Prime Minister today comforting and supportive," he said.

Lottery, page 17

FE Focus, page 25

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