Devout launch the Tesco testament
Facing the press at this week's launch of the White Paper, David Blunkett brought his hands together as if in prayer.
It may have been read as an exhortation to the above, but in fact it was exactly in keeping with the evangelical thrust of the launch of Excellence in Schools, a far-reaching document which prescribes what will be put into children's stomachs as well as their heads.
As all post-modernist evangelists know, the message is not complete without the video. And 20-minutes of rousing messages from the Education and Employment Secretary and gold-starred teachers will be distributed to local authorities and be on schools' doormats when they arrive back after the summer break. Let us hope their video recorders will not have been nicked during the holidays.
Michael Bichard, Mr Blunkett's permanent secretary, kicked off the launch in New Testament vein, saying this is all part of a huge consultation exercise. He hopes that where potential disciples gather (possibly at a Tesco's check-out where bite-sized chunks of the White Paper will be displayed), they will discuss the standards message.
The 84-page document has a catholic ambit: it begins even before a child is a twinkling in the eye. Would-be parents will be taught skills and their responsibilities will be explained. Once the child is born he or she will be entitled to a nursery place at age four and from the first term in school a series of tests will monitor performance and be linked to teachers' professional development and the school's place in league tables.
A watchful but benevolent Education Secretary will make sure carrots are eaten, times tables recited and homework done. He will reward good teachers, but to those who fail he will mete out his punishment using a new fast-track method of dismissal (subject to consultation).
As part of his inspection reforms, Mr Blunkett will end the five terms' worth of angst and nail-biting for heads and staff. Instead he will introduce a heart-attack-inducing notice of just two terms before the inspector calls.
It is an ambitious tract. By the year 2002 there will be classes of a maximum of 30 for five, six and seven-year-olds; tough targets on literacy and numeracy; mandatory qualifications for heads; home-school contracts; and less truancy.
It may be idealistic, but it is also pragmatic. Professor Michael Barber, one of Mr Blunkett's five acolytes at the launch (see Diary, page 19) explained. The document was full of examples of good practice that were already raising standards.
It was the professor's finest moment and worth the interesting pallor caused by hundreds of hours in front of his word processor churning out books. Now many of his ideas have been taken up and presented in the Government's most important White Paper. As head of the Department for Education and Employment's standards and effectiveness unit, he will now have to see them through.
The Government will be pleased at the initial reactions. Stephen Dorrell, the shadow education secretary, accused it of stealing Conservative clothes and warned against giving local authorities more power, when they had caused most of the problems. But he could not be seen to be knocking a White Paper which aims to raise standards.
Elsewhere there was widespread welcome. The unions are being positive. "First-class start in the battle to raise education standards," said the Daily Express going on to warn about local authorities. The Sun shrieked. "It's the end of trendy teaching . . . Let's wish him (Tony Blair) success, success, success."