Radical leadership is more important than money in creating successful schools, Tony Blair said yesterday.
The Prime Minister claimed the Government had transformed education through introducing a new way of doing things, backed by major investment.
Speaking to delegates of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust in Birmingham, he claimed when he entered No10, he knew there had been "chronic under-investment in the service".
"I could see that in the number of schools in a state of awful disrepair. The fall in teaching training places. The fact that almost half of 11-year-olds and way over half of 16-year-olds failed to get to the requisite grade.
"But I also knew it wasn't just about money. I could see school A in an area of social deprivation doing well and school B in a similar area doing badly.
"And I could see some schools, indeed some whole areas, where whatever resource was put in, without radical change in leadership, nothing was going to get better." Mr Blair claimed debates over education reform had too often ended up in a cul-de-sac of excellence versus equality.
"I had genuine and well-meaning people telling me if you improve this or that school in an area that is an educational desert, you will cause terrible problems.
"'Like what?' I would say. 'The parents will all be wanting to send their children there', they would say. 'The other school will suffer'.
"'But the children are suffering now', I would reply."
Allowing difference has been key to the educational reforms introduced by Labour under the Prime Minister.
He said much of what the Government had done was about finding a new path between old prejudices against fee-paying schools and dissatisfaction with comprehensives.
Mr Blair claimed the reforms had been a success with 84,000 more pupils leaving primary schools this year able to read and write properly compared with 1997.
Nearly 100,000 youngsters can do basic maths, and primary schools in the poorest areas are improving at double the rate of schools in more affluent areas. He also highlighted success in flagship projects, with 27 per cent more pupils gaining five good GCSEs in specialist schools and rising pass rates in academies.
The number of failing schools had fallen dramatically while secondaries with less than a quarter of pupils gaining five good GCSEs had dropped from 600 in 1997 to 60. Mr Blair said he could "feel" a good school as soon as he stepped inside one.
"I probably visit more schools than any Prime Minister before me," he said.
"The moment I walk through the doors of a school I can feel what it's like, not simply the buildings or the staff, but the spirit of the school."
He said visiting good schools gave him "some of the buzz" of what it was like to be a teacher and schools that had led changes over the last decade had been the "pioneers". Meanwhile, Education Secretary Alan Johnson said the exam reforms announced yesterday would make further education more stretching.
A #2.5 million package would ensure every local authority had at least one school or college offering the International Baccalaureate.
The two-year IB programme requires students to take six subjects, including their own language, a second language, one arts and one science subject and three compulsory elements: an extended project, theory of knowledge and community service.
All A-level students will be required from 2008 to produce an extended, dissertation-style project needing independent research, thought and planning.
There will also be an A-star grade in order to allow them to identify the most talented pupils from among the ever-growing crowd of A-grade candidates.