Leading article: Here is a theme for Labour's school song

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Education is not the same as education policy. The former is a dense, half-understood business of classrooms, corridors and bells - 15,000 hours for each child's school life, Michael Rutter calculated, and during how many of them are the grey cells switched on? On the outcome of that daily grind, oppressive and liberating in equal measure, whole lives hinge. Education does not just secure access to a job, it builds capacity for lifelong stimulation.

Education policy, by contrast, is what Tony Blair was engaging in yesterday in his Didcot speech. It is also what Gillian Shepherd is striving to do with her voucher plans as the right-wing Tory hounds bay at her heels. Education policy is usually about structures - local management for schools, opting out, selection, national tests. Structures affect what happens in the classrooms and corridors, but only tangentially. The teacher is the key to every educational door. There was meat in Mr Blair's speech yesterday, but a lot of it was dead flesh from slain holy cows. Real education - what the teacher does, her values, competences, responsibilities and rights - were disconcertingly absent.

Labour will say it is building policy brick by block. That is fine; but cultures were never changed item by agenda item - they are changed by creating a new, appealing idea to which people (in this case, the teaching profession) yearn to subscribe. We need, along with the policy detail, a convincing picture of what the New Labour expects an ideal teacher to be.

Mention bricks, and those who remember their education history will think of Pink Floyd and "Another Brick in the Wall". The song - with its angry chorus of Islington Green children - is a handy symbol for the burden Labour still carries: urban nightmare schools staffed by trendy-lefty teachers who cared more for the "socialist" project than they ever did for the individual children passing through their classrooms. It was a hit just four years after Jim Callaghan's celebrated speech at Ruskin College, Oxford, to which Tony Blair yesterday did obeisance.

Ruskin was indeed a remarkable event. Here was a politician saying for the first time that what goes on inside the secret heart of the school, the classroom, not only matters but should radically change. Callaghan was unable to translate his alarm into a policy. Not only Pink Floyd but twenty subsequent National Union of Teachers' annual conferences have demonstrated the extent of the failure to shift the profession's core.

Tory analysis is right, in part. The hearts and minds of significant numbers of professional teachers were captured by an ideology not just alien to the bulk of parents but detrimental to the life chances of most children. But that is not the whole story. Tory analysis never accepts the responsibility of successive Conservative education ministers, and their cabinet colleagues, for belittling the ethic of public service on which, ultimately, good teaching rests; nor does it see how there is a vital difference between a trade union consciousness (which schools could well do without) and properly rewarded professionalism.

New Labour buys much of the Tory critique. David Blunkett has been audacious enough to spice it with Woodheadery. Chris Woodhead, chief inspector of schools, is too evidently enamoured of the political game to make him a trusted auditor. Yet it is hard not to agree with his savage horticulture. Some schools are rank with pedagogical weeds.

But once they are out, what kind of teachers should replace them? Tony Blair talked yesterday - again this is a cross-party commonplace - of bringing more real world experience into the schools. Good, but he still needs to tell us what he thinks a good teacher looks and sounds like.

Hard policy choices will have to be made, some of them offensive to Labour supporters. Teaching is first and foremost about mental skills, from reading and figuring at the early ages, to knowledge acquisition and expression later. And because teachers are not, therefore, social workers, they need political support, for example, in excluding disruptive pupils.

Messrs Blunkett and Blair will of course bear in mind the paradox of idealism. Those left-wing teachers who have done so much damage were sincere, and very often passionate in their desireto achieve an egalitarian social revolution. Mr Blair instead offers a kind of realistic idealism, in which values such as discipline and self-discipline are paramount, though not in some anachronistic sense of physical punishment: whatever he may do to his young children, beating has no place in a modern British school. The purpose of discipline and order in schools is to create the space in which people can learn, and live safely with each other. It also has the secondary value of generating an ethic of respect.

Teachers must - in this respect also they are a microcosm of the paradoxes and opportunities New Labour presents - mix a commitment to achievement for all with a lust for the success of the best. They must be egalitarians who love individual achievement, able to distinguish sheep without losing touch with the goats.

Teachers will always have mixed motives. Few will ever do it for the money (though Labour will need to think more about how professional behaviour merits professional pay). Some might however yearn to do a vital job because they see it - rightly - as one of the greatest commitments to the idea of society and the expansion of opportunity within it. In that idea, New Labour needs to find the theme for its new school song.