Alienation on the fringe

At the Conservative conference in Bournemouth, Frances Rafferty found education sidelined by Europe and dead parrots

IT WOULD have been the proverbial wet Tuesday night in Preston, except it didn't rain.

Ahead of the Bournemouth conference, David Willetts, shadow education secretary, was meeting members of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers as part of the Conservatives' "Listening and Learning" policy - an attempt to understand why they were so convincingly drubbed in the election.

It was a chastening experience, he said. The teachers had given him a fairly frank appraisal of his Government's record and what it had done to their morale. Worse still, while Mr Willetts had been preaching about giving more freedoms to schools, even allowing teachers to take them over , all he heard was NASUWT members moaning about local management and the extra work it caused.

At a conference fringe meeting a week later, again with the NASUWT, Mr Willetts, said there had been nothing more depressing than people who merely gave their profession - as a teacher or nurse - as the reason they would not be voting Conservative.

Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, told him: "The great reforming Conservative government was not re-elected because it alienated profoundly a large number of teachers who historically voted Conservative." Now, he said, there is a Labour government which has taken many of his party's policies, painted them a tasteful shade of pink and claimed them as its own.

He said Labour was in danger of making the same mistake as its predecessor by evicting the creativity teachers can bring to their jobs.

But in the Bournemouth bars the talk was not about education. Europe and dead parrots were the words heard most loudly over the bottled beers and gins and tonic. The Sun had pictured a Monty Python-style parrot with William Hague's head, dead on its perch. And the most popular show of that day was the heavyweight contest between the Euro-sceptic Lord Lamont and the former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke. While David Willetts's speech was well received, he does have one problem. He isn't Ann Widdecombe.

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