More support, less pressure

11th May 2001 at 01:00
Only Tony Blair knows who is most likely to be the next Secretary of State for Education but Westminster-watchers are putting their money on Stephen Byers.

Teachers may well feel alarmed at the prospect of the return to the Department for Education of the man who named and shamed failing schools within a fortnight of becoming a minister and who proved himself a staunch supporter of Chris Woodhead.

If Mr Byers does get the job, he will need to recognise that the Government's relationship with teachers must change. David Blunkett, widely expected to move to the Home Office, said recently that his one regret was his failure to do more to improve teacher morale. The last thing schools need is an unreformed Mr Byers brandishing his "zero tolerance of incompetence" banner.

Teachers do not fear Mr Byers's reputation as a moderniser. Changes to the curriculum for pupils aged 14 to 18, for example - to provide vocational courses for some and earlier GCSE options for others - command support within the profession.

Many also acknowledge the achievements of a government which has incresed spending on each pupil by 20 per cent, cut infant class sizes, improved reading standards in primaries and provided nursery or school places for all four-year-olds. Mr Blunkett and his team of ministers, advisers and civil servants have defied the sceptics and brought about real reforms.

On one promise, however, they have failed to deliver. Labour said that its relationship with teachers would be a combination of pressure and support. So far, the pressure has outweighed the support.

The next education secretary must redress the balance or recruitment difficulties will deepen. Teachers have been the key to Mr Blunkett's success. They are vital to the drive to raise standards and also to educate future voters about democracy. (Our special election supplement this week offers some tips on the latter.) A poll published at the weekend showed that teachers have risen in public esteem over the past two decades by seven percentage points and, after doctors, are the most trusted profession. Politicians remain the least trusted. Messrs Blair, Blunkett and Byers should take note.

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