Leading Article: Now it's up to the teachers to back Blunkett

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The Independent Online
Imagine what a difference it would make to people's lives if their educational achievement was, on average, 10, or 20, or 30 per cent higher. Better-educated people are not only more productive, more creative; they are also more fulfilled and more responsible. In short, they are better citizens. Nothing, in a modern democratic economy, matters more than enabling people to play as rich a role as possible in our society - to enjoy all the advantages of our way of life. David Blunkett's task is thus enormous. His performance will affect not only how the country regards him; but also how we judge Labour and Tony Blair. Yes, people will vote Labour - or not - for other reasons too. But if Mr Blunkett fails, his supporters will have every reason to wonder what this government was for.

So it's a heavy duty. But he starts out with a better prospect of success than any Secretary of State for Education has enjoyed for more than 30 years. The reason is simple, but too little noted: that, after a decade and a half of hostility and struggle, parents and teachers and politicians overwhelmingly agree about what needs to be done. Remember the dread word "consensus" that Margaret Thatcher strove to dismiss from our language? Remember how, in spite of her efforts, the whole educational world pleaded for consensus on schooling? Well, now we have it. While the arguments have raged over tests and curricula and teachers and funding, certain core truths have been emerging about what works in schools, and what doesn't. Suddenly we find that we do not need to argue about many of the fundamentals. As the White Paper says, "We know what it takes to create a good school: a strong, skilled head who understands the importance of clear leadership, committed staff and parents, high expectations of every child, and above all good teaching." Precisely: achieve those things and everything else will follow. We do not need to argue about many of the details - such as whether children should practise mental arithmetic. We know that if they don't, they will be incapable of more developed activities. We even know that they learn it better when taught as a whole class. Better still if their teachers can compute quickly in their own heads.

This is the educational equivalent of Mr Blair's ``neither left nor right but the radical centre'' nostrum for politics generally; in this case, neither trendy ill-discipline nor cheerless rote-learning, but disciplined, modern learning. That requires proper resources, including decently-paid teachers, new books and computers - and traditional values. We have, perhaps, moved beyond the playground catcalling between mods and trads. Certainly, on that level, yesterday's White Paper is the most grown-up document to emerge from government for a long time. It recognises explicitly that the Conservatives were right to introduce a national curriculum, and tests, and to start challenging mixed-ability teaching. Indeed, Labour is now promising not only to improve league-tabling to measure progress, but also to introduce more tests, and higher targets. But, as Excellence in Schools points out, the Conservatives then became obsessed with structure, believing that tinkering with new forms of school management and governance would in itself raise standards. Mr Blunkett is accepting that the Tories exposed the problem, but looked in the wrong place for an answer. He has therefore swung round to focus again on the substance of schooling: what teachers and pupils actually do.

His proposed mechanism is coherent and straightforward. Set national targets. Require local councils to provide plans describing how they will lead their schools to meet those targets. Use successful schools to show others how to improve. Improve teachers' confidence and ability. If individual schools or teachers succeed, they will be rewarded. But if they continue to fail, no excuses will be tolerated.

That programme, clearly detailed in the White Paper, is a cogent summation of all that we know needs to be done. But central problems remain. One is that the Government must rely heavily on exhortation, to which some teachers are notoriously immune. Mr Blunkett's appeal for a "can do" mentality to spread through the profession should surely be applauded. But will those doubters hear him? In this context, professionalising teachers by creating a General Teaching Council (similar in objectives to the professional authorities for lawyers and doctors) could be a powerful engine. But it is not worth bothering with if the teaching unions treat it as a forum for playing out their destructive competition for members. It must be an inclusive body, not a cluster of cynical caucuses.

Mostly the White Paper's core principles are worthwhile. But the principle that policies should be designed to benefit the many, not just the few, is open to huge misunderstanding. It does imply that "the few" are unimportant. Thus some teachers are encouraged to believe that they don't need to expend energy on aspiring and able children, leading middle-class parents to disconnect themselves from state schooling - which, in turn, undermines the whole system. If standards are to rise, every child is important, from the least able to the most able. Quality education is about persuading the unmotivated to learn, persuading mediocre performers to become good performers, and extending the brightest to their fullest stretch.

But Mr Blunkett, above all, has the right kind of ambition for a politician: the ambition to achieve something. With every day in power he is demonstrating that he is determined to make his programme work. He is pointing the vessel in the right direction. Now all he needs is a fair wind. Everyone, above all the teachers themselves, should give it to him.