Major hopes to heal rift with teachers: Unions invited to join effort to raise standards and reinforce authority of heads

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR declared yesterday that he wanted to improve relations with the teaching unions and work jointly to raise standards and improve discipline in schools.

In what will be seen partly as an effort to lay to rest lingering bitterness over last summer's confrontation over school tests, Mr Major said he wanted to 'reinforce the authority of teachers, and head teachers in particular, in schools'.

Mr Major's remarks came as John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, prepared to announce new guidance on school discipline along with a review of clauses in the 1989 Children Act. Some unions say the Act's provisions against child abuse also limit teachers' rights to punish or rebuke pupils.

The guidelines, which Mr Major said would be discussed with the unions, are believed to include a scale of punishments ranging from withdrawal of privileges to detention and expulsion, and rewards for merit and good behaviour.

The Prime Minister stressed that he 'thoroughly' welcomed the fact that over the past 20 or 30 years 'schools have overwhelmingly become more friendly places than they were in the past'.

But he said in an interview with BBC radio's The World This Weekend that teachers needed the authority 'to deal with bad behaviour' and that many heads argued they had 'less authority than they would wish'. He added that 'we do need to establish an orderly atmosphere in schools. I think there needs to be no doubt what the school rules are.'

Mr Major said that he personally favoured school uniforms, homework and team sport as an important part of school life. But while he hoped more schools would move towards them, with the Government seeking to devolve more decisions down to individual schools it would be up to the schools themselves.

Mr Major complained that 'many people have raised all sorts of artificial fears about the welfare state' and added: 'I am in the business of sustaining the welfare state not destroying (it) but that means we have to be in a position to sustain it.' He expected universal child benefit to continue.

He said that the prediction by Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, that the state pension would be worth a 'nugatory' amount in the next century had been 'taken out of context'. The state pension would remain but many people would be retiring in the next century with 'two or three pensions'.

Mr Major strongly defended the decision to put up taxes, despite the Conservatives' pre-election rhetoric. He said that two years ago the 'general perception' had been that the recession was over. 'It turned out that we were wrong, that the recession went on longer than we had anticipated. That meant our deficit was a good deal larger.'

Gordon Brown, Labour's shadow Chancellor, said later: 'The Prime Minister has admitted that 1994 is a year for tax rises. We are set for ten rises in the next ten months, as well as big rises in fares and charges.

'He was completely unapologetic about overturned promises and no one will ever trust the Conservative Party or Mr Major on taxes again.'

Extracts from interview, page 2