Tony Blair may have wowed the nation in Blackpool, but he didn't wow the teachers. They were left smarting - notably by his assertion that "There are too few good state schools" and that there is too much "tolerance of mediocrity". Blair's stance strengthened the chilly impression created by his speech in New York last week - that he simply sees Britain's teachers as a vested interest to be defeated. It was left to Education Secretary David Blunkett to redress the balance. Yesterday he gave his all in an effort to convince the poor bloody infantry of the education army that, yes, the Government does appreciate their efforts and, yes, it does understand their problems.
Last year, teachers were delighted when education moved to the top of the policy agenda. Now they are not so sure. Since the Government staked its reputation on delivering certain results, the stakes have risen. Education has become a no-holds-barred political arena, with teachers on the receiving end. They don't like it. But, as Blunkett made clear, there has to be a deal. The days when public money came with no strings attached are gone. The new understanding must be: society pays teachers (and doctors, and the police) to perform certain functions. The Pounds 19 billion allocated to education must be in exchange for the profession delivering the goods that society wants. Oddly, for a Government which pays so much attention to spin, ministers lack sureness of touch when it comes to the teachers. Far from being part of a powerful interest group dedicated to resisting progress, the average teacher feels more like a downtrodden drudge who has already conscientiously implemented countless new policies.
Teachers need to ignore the Prime Minister's macho posturing, and focus on the real substance of yesterday's announcements - such as the measures to help schools cope with truancy and disruption. These will improve the lives of thousands of teachers - and the prospects of tens of thousands of children. David Blunkett was right to call teachers a "precious asset". More financial support is promised to enable them to show what they can do.The real challenge is to abandon their passive, martyred stance and recognise their new opportunities. Teachers could grasp the initiative in modernising not just their schools, but their own profession. But it would help if Tony Blair didn't make any more speeches for a while.