Election '97: Blair pledges 21-point plan for education

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair yesterday told his critics that he has a passion - and it is for education.

He used a speech at Birmingham University to answer attacks that new Labour has no passion for social justice by laying out his party's commitment to education.

"If this election is about anything," Mr Blair said, "it should be about education. To those who say where is Labour's passion for social justice, I say education is social justice."

And he claimed: "Education is liberty. Education is opportunity. Education is the key not just to how we as individuals succeed and prosper, but to the future of this country."

Mr Blair abandoned his prepared attacks on the Conservatives to deliver a speech which outlined 21 positive steps which a Labour government would take to improve education for the 21st century.

Urging voters to ignore the "tit-for-tat" of electoral politics, he said: "Focus on the future hopes of this country. Focus on how we can run this country for the many, not the few. Focus on what leadership really means and then conclude that unless we drive up education standards in this country we will neither have the vision nor the compassion nor the future that the country needs."

The 21 steps include a nursery place for all four-year-olds, class sizes of under 30 for five-seven-year-olds, new targets for 11-year-olds in literacy and numeracy, modernised comprehensives with fast-tracking for bright pupils and expanded higher education with a fairer system of student finance.

Other steps included tough new targets for head teachers, reforms of teacher training and a new scheme for getting rid of bad teachers. There would be more spending on education as the cost of unemployment fell, Mr Blair said.

He promised to lead a government that would end the constant vilification of teachers and value the profession. Equally, it was intolerable for pupils to be saddled with teachers who could not teach.

Mr Blair said Labour would keep Conservative plans to add another 300 specialist schools to the existing 150 but would ensure the benefits were shared by all neighbouring schools.

Insisting that the scheme he envisaged was not an elitist proposal, he said specialist schools would offer their facilities, whether in music, science or languages, to all gifted children in an area. They would do so both during the school week, after hours and at weekends.

Money is already in the Department for Education and employment budget for an expans- ion of the specialist schools scheme, though, as The Independent revealed yesterday, the Conservatives want to earmark some of the funding to help achieve their target of a grammar school in every town.

Mr Blair promised not to close down the remaining 160 grammar schools. "I have no intention of waging war on any schools except failing schools. So far as the existing 160 grammar schools are concerned, as long as parent want them, they will stay.

"Grant-maintained schools will prosper. Church schools will too - they have been a key part of our education system for 100 years and long may they remain so. We will tackle what isn't working, not what is."

Despite his positive theme, the Labour leader took the opportunity to criticise Conservative plans to boost the number of grammar schools. The Tories had "fallen into the old trap", he claimed.

"It would mean secondary modern education for 80 per cent of pupils. It is the opposite of what is needed, turning the clock back when we need to turn it forward."

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