Leading Article: It all begins in the classroom

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The Independent Online
Easter teacher union conferences are rarely enlightened occasions. They are, in their way, mirrors of education debates in Parliament. They ring old, cracked bells, fighting the battles of the day before yesterday and ignoring the opportunities and challenges of the future. They ignore, in other words, the children. And yet, this spring, there is a prevalent sense that the urgency of classroom improvement has become a focus of national agreement.

After the tumult of change in recent years, there is a glimmering of national consensus on education. It centres on the need, recognised by teachers, parents and politicians alike, to make improved classroom teaching the beginning and end of education policy. Recent speeches by Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, and her Labour shadow, David Blunkett, have exuded moderation. Stripped of ritual obeisance to their parties' sacred cows (comprehensives and choice), they have, in fact, been variations on the same theme: improvement starts in the classroom.

It was not just Mr Blunkett's effort to sign Labour up to private finance for schools when he spoke to the NUT the other day. Nor was it Mrs Shephard's discovery, after the rhetorical extremism of her predecessor John Patten, that teachers have to be co-opted rather than battered. They both agree that the structure of the schools, even how they are financed, matters less than how minds are shaped, facts and techniques learnt and how the achievement of pupils is assessed and registered.

The broad line of agreement says: let us stick with common secondary schools for the majority at 11-plus and focus instead on the qualities of the pupils coming into them and the skills and attitudes of the pupils completing a core curriculum at age 16. Other things, such as nursery provision, the shape of the 16-19 course offering and the need to refashion vocational education - these are important. But what is taught and how it is assessed matter more than where.

Most people see that the national curriculum needs to be pared back to a core of numeracy and literacy, that pupils need to be regularly tested. Who now dissents from the national objective of striving to make all 16- year-olds better readers, better users of the languages of maths, better thinkers, better equipped to make a living and go forward to learn more in this ever-changing world?

That ambition can only be realised at the chalkface by dedicated teachers. They need to be backed up (although this will all too often be an aspiration rather than a reality) by parental enthusiasm. Their training ought not to stop, or even start, in specialist training colleges but rely instead on the experience of accomplished educators.

Good teachers need good inspectors, whose voice has to be much more nuanced and emollient than the one Chris Woodhead of the Office of Educational Standards has been using lately. Inspectors, themselves at the acme of professionalism, should be supporting and nurturing good teaching (and so eliminating bad). There is no need for them to behave like a gang of heavy-booted policemen out to maximise their convictions.

Teaching has, once again, to become a dignified activity, carried out by professionals. That professionalism ought to be captured by the creation of a general teaching council, akin to the General Medical Council, is long overdue. The amount teachers get paid has to be correlated with their classroom performance and both of those with how the public esteems them. There is now solid agreement, across the parties, across the country, that pay, performance and esteem should all now be rising.