Labour's tough line on schools `is Tory echo'

Education policy paper: Teaching unions claim they are being used as political scapegoats in drive to raise standards
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The Independent Online
Education ministers reacted with glee yesterday to Labour's new, tougher stance on schools, which they said echoed Conservative policies previously condemned by the Opposition.

But as the party launched its drive to raise standards in schools its leadership was accused by teaching unions of using schools as political scapegoats.

Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, said Labour was belatedly adopting Tory policy. The party had opposed government plans to introduce inspections, to close failing schools and to set up specialist schools, but now accepted all of them.

"I think it is a pity the Labour Party did not vote to support us when we introduced testing at 7, 11 and 14. But one cheer for the Labour Party for coming on board," she said.

While there was support among the teaching profession for proposals on "super-teachers" who will be paid more to stay in the classroom, on smaller classes and on a new emphasis on parental responsibilities, other points were less popular.

Teachers' unions said Mr Blair's figures on failing schools were inaccurate, and insisted that his claim was actually based on the proportion of poor lessons. In any case, they added, a substantial percentage were bound to be below average.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, supported plans for teacher-training reforms but suggested much of Labour's paper was politically motivated.

"There is a real danger that schools are becoming the whipping boys of party politics as the main two parties vie with each other to be seen to be tougher on standards," he said.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said most schools had nothing to fear because they were performing well: "It is unfortunate that yet again politicians want to introduce proposals on the back of false claims of mass failure. Sadly, Labour has not lived up to its desire for high standards."

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters/ Union of Women Teachers, said that Labour had not listened hard enough to classroom teachers. Many of them were already under pressure from government initiatives and could not implement Labour's plans without extra resources, he said.

"There are too many signs that Labour has been listening to the professors and directors of education all cavorting about at a safe distance from school and not enough to the `poor bloody infantry'," he said.

Harry Greenway, Conservative MP for Ealing North and a former languages teacher, denounced plans to teach foreign languages to children from the age of seven. "The simple fact is that it cannot be done because the teachers do not exist to do it. That is why this is a completely dishonest and dishonourable pledge," he said.

Main policy points

Failing schools to be closed and reopened with new head and governors.

Bad teachers and heads to be sacked more quickly.

All schools to set targets for better exam results.

A new grade of better-paid "superteacher".

Compulsory professional qualification for all heads.

Teacher associates from business and the professions to help in classrooms.

Assessment for all five-year-olds.

Minimum homework levels for all pupils.

Primary-school children to learn foreign languages.

Class sizes for five to seven-year-olds to be reduced to 30 or under.

Home-school contracts for all pupils.