Forging an inclusive society;Platform;Opinion

11th September 1998 at 01:00
Teachers have a key role to play in creating a Britain which is fair for all of its people, says Prime Minister Tony Blair

THIS Government came to power as a government for all the people, for the many not the few. We pledged to deal with the huge problems of inequality which had left great scars across the country.

There is a mountain to climb. This has to be a long-term project. But we are determined to tackle poverty, unemployment, poor skills, poor housing, high crime and low educational achievement.

It became clear to me soon after coming into govern- ment that we needed to break down the barriers between government departments if we are really going to make a difference.

I set up the Social Exclusion Unit precisely to look at problems which are connected - but are too often treated in isolation by policy-makers. I want them to look at problems in totally new ways.

They have already published their proposals to bring down levels of school exclusions and truancy by one third by 2002. And their radical proposals on reducing the number of people sleeping rough were hailed by Shelter as the best government report on the subject in 30 years.

Their third report on the poorest neighbourhoods comes out next week.

It deals with a wide range of problems in our most rundown areas. And one of its depressing, but not entirely surprising, conclusions is that failure at school is heavily concentrated in the poorest places.

The report is the first account for a generation of what it is like to live in Britain's poorest neighbourhoods. The stark fact is that there have been many initiatives in the past, spending billions of pounds of government money.

Yet still the problems persist. Poor education, crime, truancy, drug addiction, homelessness and unemployment are all linked. We have to link up the solutions.

Next week's report is packed with new ideas, making sure money is spent on people not just on refurbishing buildings. Most importantly, local people must be involved.

Quite often, the school is the one institution in a neighbourhood that can really bring the community together. There is plenty of evidence that success or failure at school is not just about poverty. Good teachers can create the dynamic force which can turn round not only whole schools but whole communities.

Just as teachers who are improving standards in the top schools should get the credit so too should the people who are desperately trying to drive up standards in the toughest neighbourhoods.

Teachers and headteachers all over the country are dedicating a huge amount of energy and imagination to this. Not just getting the basics right but also making sure that the community creates a climate where learning can stick.

That can mean getting local parents or businesses together to run a breakfast club so children start the day with some decent food inside them.

Or tackling the low aspirations of teenagers, connecting them with employers so that they can see that education will actually lead somewhere.

Often the key is getting parents interested in their children's education. That can have the knock-on effect of getting parents back into learning and help their chances of getting a job as well as giving their children a better start.

These schemes make a huge difference to the prospects of the poorest children. So we have to make sure that we are doing enough to promote and encourage good ideas. We can't afford to leave it to chance or expect hard-pressed schools and teachers to reinvent the wheel in every school.

The new Sure Start scheme, launched after the comprehensive spending review in July, will include centres for the under-eights with access to health visitors, childcare and early learning. It will mean many more of the most vulnerable children arrive in school ready to learn.

We are pumping pound;800 million of new money into turning round the very poorest neighbourhoods. There will be maximum flexibility about what the money can be spent on. There will have to be maximum community involvement and a chance for new groups - including schools - to take the lead.

The benefits of a good school spread well beyond the pupils. Children who are getting something out of school are far less likely to be out causing trouble every night.

The Social Exclusion Unit's report will set out a huge agenda for filling in the missing bits of the jigsaw in government policy. We must finally be able to offer hope to those who live in the poorest places. That means tackling ALL the problems together - from crime and housing to lack of transport, shops, banks and other services.

Regeneration has to be about more than just buildings. Breathing new life into a community is about more than bricks and mortar. It is about creating vibrant, safe communities in which schools are cherished, teachers respected and young people feel they have a future.

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