Many teachers have felt disillusioned in recent years. But after considerable Government confusion, we are now moving to a reasonable consensus on the curriculum. It is time to start assessing the role of teachers and teaching today.
Raising standards and boosting achievement are essential if we are to improve educational opportunity and economic renewal for the new century. To succeed, we must recognise the need for first-class professionalism at the chalkface.
To restore professional morale and public esteem we must create a new confidence in our education system. This means teachers regarding themselves as professionals in the same way as any other professional group. There must be a new contract between teachers and parents, and between Government and the teaching profession.
Such a partnership should include teacher appraisal and mentoring, school development plans and targets, improved home-school liaison, better teacher training, and a General Teaching Council.
We must build on the best of existing appraisal schemes - and find new ways to support and evaluate teachers.
The additional responsibilities which headteachers enjoy as a result of local management of schools have increased the need for additional management and leadership training, as well as the development of appraisal schemes.
The Headlamp programme for new heads and deputies may be a start, but it is equally important that we address the needs of more experienced heads in order to update their knowledge and ability to take on a very different role from the past. A closer link between appraisal and school development plans is also worth considering in this key area of leadership.
The Office for Standards in Education should offer more than criticism. Inspection should be combined with practical advice to ensure that schools tackle areas of weakness and are assisted in raising standards and expectations.
The relationship between parents and teachers must be one of partnership and mutual respect. Ensuring that homework is done, and offering back-up support at home - or in the school or library - has an important role to play in educational development and discipline.
A General Teaching Council would enhance the professional status of teachers. Providing a complementary function to teacher associations, it would fulfil an independent role in regulating the profession, and enhance confidence in teachers and their credibility.
Of equal importance in a discussion about professionalism is the need for career development. The absence of a clear programme of education in leadership skills for teachers means that we wait until heads and deputies are appointed before developing the skills that are essential to them.
The career structure should offer opportunity for progression to those who do not wish to become heads or deputies. Developing fellowships and enhancing the standing of those continuing to work in the classroom will be vital. This could be done in conjunction with teacher training institutions, with wider academic and industrial contacts and by teacher interchange both within Britain and in Europe.
Labour wishes to see graduate entry to the profession. But we also recognise the benefit to teachers of having teacher assistants in the classroom and of experiments with mentoring schemes for particular pupils.
The debate between traditionalists and progressives has led to a polarisation in which the welfare of the child seems to have been neglected. There must be a balance where common sense reigns and where pupil-centred teaching is complemented by a learning environment and instruction where this is appropriate.
Literacy and numeracy must be seen as the crucial skills which children have to acquire in their earliest years. It is simply not acceptable for one in six adults to fail to be able adequately to read and write ,and for many pupils to be struggling with the simplest written material.
The teaching of these skills - and the development of schemes such as Reading Recovery - will depend on teachers having the necessary skills themselves and the support to raise standards and achieve reasonable targets.
Teaching teachers how to communicate reading and writing skills has to be the foundation of teacher training courses at primary level, while an understanding of interpersonal communications skills is essential at secondary level.
The use of the Internet will become an essential tool for teaching and a vital resource. We must explore how we can enhance the learning process by access to such technology - in a way which provides quality, reliability and access to comparative information. Teachers should not fear such developments, but see them as complementary to existing sources.
Teachers are in the front line of the drive to prepare our young people for the decades ahead. We must ensure that we offer teachers the backing they need to develop a professional pride. In return, we as a society will expect from teachers the dedication to improving standards and quality which goes with the highest level of professionalism.
Together we can work to enhance the life chances and opportunity available to our young people as we approach a new century. This is the challenge for the years ahead.