When madness becomes sanity

11th July 1997 at 01:00
Tony Blair said his priorities were "education, education, education". This must mean more teachers and more resources for state schools. Now.

Since 1980 50,000 teachers have been cut from our state schools in the drive to reduce public spending. That is a l0 per cent cut. The consequences are still continuing, as if the election has made no difference.

This year, at my son's state primary school in Cambridge we have had to increase class sizes above 30 and make part-time staff redundant to avoid cutting core teaching staff. Across the county there has been a more than five-fold rise in notified redundancies among support staff this year. Nobody wants to see class sizes rising and support staff laid off. But this madness becomes sanity after 17 years of parsimony with the education system.

There has been a divergence in the fortunes of public and private schooling since 1979. Both school systems improved together during the 1970s, but the state sector has been left behind during the 1980s and l990s. The official figures (Social Trends 1996) show that private schools now employ one teacher per l0 pupils (199495), whereas the state system remains where it was in 198081 with one teacher per 19 pupils. The ratio in private schools used to be only 50 per cent better than state schools; it is now l00 per cent better. This is the appropriate context in which to evaluate the Tory policy of reducing, instead of increasing the nation's stock of teachers over the past two decades.

To restore the differential that existed in 19808l would require an additional l00,000 teachers in state schools (a 20 per cent increase). This would mean employing one teacher for every 16 pupils in our state schools. There would still be a big gap with the private sector (and would still be no better than the average for other western European countries) but at least no bigger gap than existed when the last Labour government was in office.

That is the scale on which the Government needs to rethink: l00,000 more teachers by 200l, starting immediately. It is no more ambitious or dramatic than the expansion of the 1970s. But it is more necessary now, as state schools have a much harder job to do with the acknowledged rise in social inequality since 1979, which has produced a generation of harder- to-teach children.

All this means increasing public spending and raising taxes. Not in an irresponsible way but with a very specific aim: to restore our lost education resources. All public opinion surveys have shown that the electorate expects and wants this; and now, not at the next Budget. We have all clearly understood the failure of the Tory offer of fool's gold - that you can somehow reduce taxes and public services without paying any price for it. This is what the landslide election result means.

This should have produced an ambitious rethink in attitudes. But so far we have only heard Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett repeating yesterday's tired talk of turning round failing schools. Of course, teaching standards are important. But state schools clearly need dramatically increased resources and staffing levels, as well. This should be the top priority, starting this year. As Cherie and Tony Blair found out, your children cannot wait: their education is happening now.

Labour should grasp the big idea that education can be for them. There is an impeccable, hard-headed economic rationale for massive investment in our schools. Education raises the future productivity of our nation. It is no coincidence that Germany, France and Denmark, the three EC countries which have consistently achieved the most impressive economic growth since the war, all have excellent national education systems and high prestige teachers.

All parents aspire to an education to be proud of for their children. The Tories made a gross political blunder in failing to see this. If Labour has the imagination to start its administration showing that it means to deliver, it will reap lasting electoral rewards and economic gains. If not, the emptiness of "education, education, education" will haunt Mr Blair.

This was sent as an open letter to Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Blunkett by 69 parents of St Paul's School, Cambridge. Parents at other schools wishing to add their support to the campaign can send their name and addresse-mailfaxphone number to: 18, Tenison Avenue, Cambridge CB1 2DY. Or e-mail to 1O1527.3504compuserve.com.

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