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Thursday, 12 April, 2001, 15:08 GMT 16:08 UK
Blair aims for public school funding levels
tony blair
Tony Blair: Promised to review teachers' workload
By Angela Harrison at the ATL conference in Torquay

The prime minister has held out the prospect of a big increase in spending on state education in England to bring resources up to the level of the independent sector.

There's still a huge, huge difference - and in the end that's why I say if you want a first class education system you have to understand as a country that we need to pay for it

Tony Blair
Speaking at a teachers' union conference - the first prime minister to have done so - he said his aim was "to get to the situation where we have a state education system that is as good in its facilities and investment as the independent sector".

"That's really what children need," he added.

The remarks came in a question-and-answer session after his speech to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) conference in Torquay.

More to be done

The Department for Education says an average of 3,690 is being spent per secondary school pupil in 2001-2.

The average fees for an independent day school are 5,800 per year, according to the Independent Schools Information Service.

A senior government source said: "The prime minister was indicating that as we continue with real-term, year-on-year spending in state schools, we would hope to narrow the gap with the independent sector."

The prime minister, who was educated at the independent Fettes College in Edinburgh, said he wanted every child to have the same "lucky" start in life that he had had.

The theme of his speech was that there had been progress in education, but there was still some way to go.

Mr Blair praised teachers for their skill and hard work, saying: "You stand for the values which bind Britain together: Equal worth, commitment, responsibility, and the right of everyone to get on and develop their talents to the full."

Faster pace of specialism

He also pledged an extra 33m to speed up the increase in specialist schools in England.

The money will be directed at establishing 820 specialist secondary schools by 2002, instead of the current target of 770 by that time.

When the green paper on the future of secondary schools was published in February, the government committed itself to having 1,000 specialist schools by 2003 and 1,500 within five years.

Mr Blair told delegates: "Our ambition is that all schools that are willing and ready should be able to achieve specialist status - provided their management and their proposal for establishing their centre of excellence, meet the required standard."

He said education remained his number one priority and repeated that Labour intended to increase the proportion of the national income spent on education if it won the general election.

"The investment is starting to get through," he said. "I don't put it higher than that but I think it is starting to get through."

"We cannot have a first class education system in this country unless we are prepared to pay for it."

Sustained investment

Mr Blair acknowledged the "deep and continuing" concern that had been expressed during the conference this week about teachers' workload and the pressures of the job.

He said there was a case for "a proper strategic review of the right balance between teaching and administration, central direction and local discretion".

The Education Secretary, David Blunkett, was ready to begin a dialogue about this.

This falls short of what the classroom unions are calling for, which is an independent review.

'Bog standard'

Another question from the floor was whether he agreed with the "bog standard comprehensives" phrase used by his official spokesman, which has caused considerable offence among teachers.

Mr Blair said it was important "not to get hung up on a phrase" - what the government was trying to say was that every school needed to have "its own distinctive ethos and message".

He also said the government did intend to reform what one questioner called "the iniquitous differences" in funding between schools in different local authority areas, but that this was "very hard to do".

And he said the government had "made a start in tackling what is a chronic problem of teacher shortages".

Political overtures

The conference has already been wooed by the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

evan harris
Earlier visitor: The Lib Dems' Evan Harris promised to raise taxes
On Tuesday, the Tory spokeswoman on education, Theresa May, and the Liberal Democrat MP, Evan Harris, took part in a debate on their various policies.

Mr Harris told delegates that it was vital to invest more in education.

"Unless you put more money in, you are just shifting deckchairs on the Titanic," he said.

The Liberal Democrats are committed to adding one pence to the basic tax rate to raise the 3.1bn they say is needed to lessen teachers' workload and cut class sizes to a maximum of 25.

'Huge investment'

Their education spokesman, Phil Willis, said on Thursday that he shared the prime minister's goal of raising state school standards to those of public schools but this would require a huge investment.

"The prime minister can't have something for nothing," he said.

Theresa May had concentrated on the Conservative "free schools" policy, under which schools would be given more control of their own budgets, leading to a cut in bureaucracy.

Mrs May said in response to Tony Blair's speech: "This is the usual spin from the prime minister who promised education would be his number one priority but who has presided over a crisis in teacher shortages, a demoralised teaching profession and an increase in secondary class sizes.

"It shows how out of touch he is with what is going on in our schools."

The BBC's Mike Baker
"Mr Blair said he came to praise teachers"
The BBC's Lousie Bevan
"This is the first time a prime minister has addressed a teacher's union conference"
Tony Blair
on the relationship between state and independent schools

Tony Blair is first PM to address a teachers' unionJust a start
Blair promises more money for education
AUDIO/VIDEO  real 56k

Complete coverage of the UK education union conferences
More from the main education unions

See also:

11 Apr 01 | Education
10 Apr 01 | Education
07 Mar 01 | Budget 2001
12 Feb 01 | Education
09 Apr 01 | Education
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