Teachers remain the key to raising school standards

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At last, one of the big questions hovering over the Government's education policy is beginning to receive an answer. Both the Prime Minister on Tuesday and David Blunkett talked on Wednesday about money - and plenty of it. After three years in which schools have found it difficult to see evidence of ministerial claims that delivery from the Conservative years of penury is at hand, the prospect is much brighter.

At last, one of the big questions hovering over the Government's education policy is beginning to receive an answer. Both the Prime Minister on Tuesday and David Blunkett talked on Wednesday about money - and plenty of it. After three years in which schools have found it difficult to see evidence of ministerial claims that delivery from the Conservative years of penury is at hand, the prospect is much brighter.

The national scandal of crumbling school buildings will be tackled seriously for the first time for decades, with much of the money going directly to individual schools to prevent local authorities diverting it for other purposes. Nursery education, a key to educational progress, particularly for working-class children, will be offered to all three-year-olds as well as four-year-olds.

For years, we have lagged behind our European neighbours in offering children the benefits of good nurseries. If the Government can sort out its plans for a new formula to get more of schools' annual budgets directly into classrooms, their finances will be on the way to recovery.

By and large, education is one of the Government's success stories. In primary schools, the literacy and numeracy hours are now widely accepted by teachers, and standards are rising rapidly. Infant class sizes are down, and proposals are in place to tackle secondary-school standards. Teachers will have the chance to earn more, albeit only if they meet conditions that some of them do not much like.

But Mr Blair's "education, education, education" project is still in danger. His carrot-and-stick approach to teachers is reasonable enough, but at times the stick has been more in evidence than the carrot. Only a few weeks ago, he was lambasting comprehensive schools, which 90 per cent of pupils attend, and he has repeatedly made political mileage out of attacks on the minority of incompetent teachers. Mr Blunkett may issue as many circulars as he likes, but without the support of classroom teachers the campaign to raise standards will falter. Earning teachers' trust should be a higher priority.

More important still, attacks on teachers undermine the status of a profession in desperate need of new recruits. The recently announced training bursaries will help, but the need to recruit and retain more teachers remains the most serious of ministers' educational problems. Money for nursery places and buildings is very welcome but, in the end, there may be no substitute for big improvements in both salaries and conditions for teachers.

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