Leading Article: Eight out of ten for Tony Blair

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The Independent Online
BY MAKING education his dominant policy platform, Tony Blair has demonstrated that both his heart and his head are in the right place. The heart, naturally: here is a father, devoted to his primary-age children, who has everyday experience of the emotional imperative that drives parents to demand higher standards in better-ordered schools. But his head also, because if Labour is to set out an alternative economic agenda then it must be built on the notion that long-term investment in education and training, designed to build a high-skill economy, is the best route to durable national renewal.

On this issue, perhaps more than any other, Mr Blair is in touch: he speaks not as a mouthpiece for the teaching unions but as a politician in thrall to parents. In large measure the policy statement that he launched yesterday also speaks to them - most conspicuously in the promises to hold down class sizes and to expand nursery schooling (which, while costly, is one of the most effective ways of raising pupils' performance in the long term). It accepts that both teachers and parents must have higher expectations of children, and that those targets should be agreed in a contract between home and school.

However, carefully sceptical readers of Labour's document might be forgiven for discerning dissonant shades of emphasis. The policy has been formulated over a couple of years, so Mr Blair was yesterday presenting a largely inherited programme. Its opening passages have a crusading tone, emphasising the challenge to succeed: can it be that they were more recently penned? It is an easy suspicion to hold because the policy details that follow on are not all so radical or clear-cut as Mr Blair would probably want.

Some obvious uncertainties already stand out. Are opted-out schools going to return to local authorities, or to local school boards? Will Labour override local choice and ban selection? These are not issues that can be evaded. And there are other, less conspicuous policies where Mr Blair needs to sharpen Labour's approach.

The best way to raise standards in schools, for example, is to improve the quality of teachers: Labour's proposals are unconvincing. Nor is it good enough to dismiss the national curriculum as a national syllabus, without being clear how Labour's national curriculum would offer a better chance of improving pupils' performance.

Mr Blair's education crusade, however, is altogether more inspiring than John Major's lamed enterprise. Labour is a full step ahead on its commitment to a broader A-level - one key to a better-educated workforce - and a Blair-led government looks more likely to deliver the national skills and training programme that Britain so urgently needs to catch up with well-educated competitor nations. In this, his first big policy presentation, the new Labour leader has shown all the right instincts. Now he needs to pin down the details, and convince parents that his high hopes will turn to reality.