“Ask me my three main priorities for government and I tell you: education, education and education.”
This is a famous quote from Tony Blair’s last Labour Party Conference Speech as leader of the Opposition in October 1996 – for the next decade from 1997 onwards he would be the UK’s Prime Minister. It’s worth reading the speech to remind yourself of what an inspiring orator he was, whether you agree(d) with his politics or not.
My interest is in the importance Tony Blair placed on education within his proposed programme of reform for the UK. To some extent this may have been opportunistic, both as a response to a perceived weakness of the Conservative Government’s education agenda and as an appeal to younger voters. But let’s assume that it was mainly intended to improve things – interestingly in his speech Blair bemoaned the UK’s position in international education rankings, something that Governments all around the world are now regularly keen to do.
Could Blair have just focused on teachers within the education part of his speech? Other issues did appear to be subsidiary, though connected – if you changed the curriculum and any testing of it, this was bound to impact on the effectiveness of teachers. Similarly if you built new schools and equipped them with the latest technology, then this would also have an impact on what happened in the classroom. But it was the teachers who were the key intermediaries for the learning that happens (I have even called them knowledge brokers).
Today OECD’s Andreas Schleicher, the international education policy guru, continuously reminds us of the value of teachers in our systems. 17 years after Tony Blair’s seminal speech, the big issue within education is still centred around the quantity and quality of teachers recruited and retained in the system, and how to get the very best out of them once in post.