Election `97: Blair attacks Tory `policy of rejection'

Judith Judd reports from Labour's education summit
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The Independent Online
John Major's promise of a grammar school in every town means four or five secondary moderns in every town, Tony Blair, the Labour leader, said yesterday.

Mr Blair used Labour's first education summit of experts to remind voters that education was his top priority.

"We are in the final phase of the general election campaign and I want to start the final week as I began the first week - by focusing on New Labour's absolute commitment to raising standards in education for all our children," he said.

On Conservative plans for selection, he challenged the Prime Minister to say which school would be the grammar school in each town and which would be the secondary moderns.

"Mr Major calls it a policy of selection. I call it a policy of rejection. Selection for the few, rejection for the many," he said. Nobody had spelled out the funding implications for those schools which would be turned into secondary moderns.

Labour sources said that the summit, at a hotel in London, aimed to emphasise the distinction between the Conservative preoccupation with grammar schools and Labour's determination to raise standards by learning from existing examples of good teaching.

David Blunkett, shadow Secretary of State for Education, told the gathering of head teachers, academics and business leaders that there would be more such summits if Labour won the election:

"The challenge is to continue listening, learning and reflecting once in government," he said, arguing that there was a compelling need to change cultural attitudes to education. "If we can encourage people to understand that education is better than winning pounds 1m on the lottery because it carries people forward as successful individuals, then we can transform society."

Labour has promised a fresh start for failing schools which would be closed and reopened with a new headteacher and some new staff.

Sue Pearson, head of Lache Infants School, Chester where 70 per cent of children have free school meals, described how she had inherited a school with low expectations of both achievement and behaviour.

She had abandoned the method of teaching reading which is most common in primary schools - listening to each child read in turn every day.

Instead, she had introduced a reading hour in which children read in groups and were taught phonics, grammar, spelling and comprehension. The percentage of seven-year-olds reaching the expected level in reading had risen from 50 per cent in 1995 to 85 per cent last year.

Labour plans to set national targets for literacy and numeracy for all 11-year-olds. Mr Blair asked local authority officers what happened to schools in their areas which did not reach their targets.

Professor Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's chief education officer, said that in his city -where primary schools had just set their own targets for achievement - they were aiming to raise the percentage of pupils reaching the expected level at 11 from 50 per cent to 72 per cent in the year 2000.

"If they don't reach those targets, don't ask what to do with teachers in schools - sack the chief education officer," he said.