Vision for all to share

4th October 1996 at 01:00
A new age of achievement in which all, and not just the few, can share" is a fine vision. The three main priorities, "education, education and education", of Tony Blair's moving address to the Labour con-ference vividly underlined the part schools and colleges must play if we are to achieve the decency, progress and restored hope he called for. But if this is to amount to more than a rallying cry, it needs to be translated into a coherent programme that will not only improve learning but spread it more evenly among all children and extend to all the opportunity of a lifetime of education and training.

On the whole, teachers should welcome the fact that they are part of Labour's big education idea. The rhetoric is tough, ambitious and no nonsense: ensuring every child leaves primary school able to read; zero tolerance of failure; targets set and instant action where they are not met. But it is refreshingly free of old Labour dogma, reflecting the distance Tony Blair and David Blunkett have brought their party. They have managed to shrug off, for the time being at least, the persistent issues of selection, structure and control in order to concentrate on practical ideas for improvement. The alternatives are stark enough: yet more youth unemployment, crime, social decay and "the debased culture of despair", as Mr Blair called the descent into loutish and self-destructive behaviour.

Blunkett and Blair rehearsed some mouthwatering lines this week: computers for all; the new national grid for learning; an integrated programme of child care and nursery education; smaller infant classes; supplementary summer classes for those who fall behind in junior school. Even the withdrawal of child benefit for students over 16 might be welcome as part of a move to greater fairness in student support in further as well as higher education.

Those in schools and colleges who will ultimately be called upon to turn such rhetoric into reality are bound to want more detail, not least about the extra help they will receive. Mr Blair in the past has promised support as well as higher expectations. As far as additional funding goes, he was giving no hostages to fortune beyond converting assisted places cash into maximum classes of 30 for five, six and seven-year-olds; unspecified subsidies from the telecommunications industry; windfall taxes on utilities to get 250,000 young unemployed back to work; lottery money to support young talent and equip teachers to use new technology; and a vow to spend more of the national income on education by the end of a five-year term in office.

The reality is that no Government is going to throw money at schools and colleges. The education service will need to show that it is making the very best use of the money it has at present and demonstrate - as it has with smaller infant classes - a sound case for further investment. Not the least of the ways it can do this is by its professionalism in setting and achieving appropriate targets for improvement, in dealing with any pockets of ineptitude and in its openness to evidence and practical ideas to meet pedagogical challenges.

That said, no putative government can expect teachers to achieve their best in crumbling buildings or against a background of debilitating cuts that sap morale and waste the energy management ought to be putting into raising standards. Nor should it expect to get the best out of professionals by continuously bombarding them with criticism and prescription - as two education outsiders from the commercial world, Ian Ireland and Chris Devereux, observe on page 17.

It is one thing to set demanding but achieveable targets aimed at raising standards and to intervene - even to the extent of sacking the managers as Labour proposes - if supposed professionals are letting down their pupils. It is difficult to see how this can be effective, let alone justified, however, if governments want to prescribe not only the desirable attainments of pupils but also the detailed methods to be used in teaching them, and the ways their schools and classes are to be organised.

If all pupils, of whatever background, are to become part of the educated - and decent - society Tony Blair aspires to, we need greater professional autonomy for teachers. Their challenge, given Britain's standing in international league tables, is to show they merit it.

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