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Blair fuels fire from unions

Beleaguered ministers will face a long list of teacher grievances in Brighton and the PM's attack on comprehensives has only made the atmosphere worse. Karen Thornton reports

THE Labour party would do well to remember who its friends - and voters - are at the party conference in Brighton next week, say the teacher unions.

"Business people stuck the knife in over the fuel crisis. It was the trade unions that backed Mr Blair," said Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers.

Most teachers voted Labour last time and the Prime Minister will need to take as much note of their concerns about his education policies, as he will of the more recent mauling over petrol.

Initiative overload, bureaucracy, low pay, performance management and inspection pressures are contributing to falling morale and the recruitment crisis, says the NUT's Doug McAvoy.

The teacher unions will be putting Education Secretary David Blunkett on the spot about recruitment, standards and the future development of the profession at two key fringe meetings.

"Labour inherited a deeply disillusioned teaching service," said Peter Smith, general secreary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. "The question teachers will ask at the next election is - has it made things worse or better? I feel it has aggravated the mood."

Mr Blair is expected to return to his key theme of education reform on Tuesday. But heads are still "incandescent" about his claim earlier this month that comprehensives needed modernising, and should do as well by the brightest pupils as grammars.

The leadership can also expect trouble from the Socialist Educational Association, which is expected to vote against party education policy, partly because of its stance on comprehensives. Some Labour party delegates also have concerns on the issue. Charlotte Atkins, a member of the Commons education select committee and MP for Staffordshire Moorlands, said: "I don't think the criticisms Mr Blair made in any way apply to the comprehensives I have come across."

But modernising and promoting comprehensives remains one of four key elements of Labour's programme for schools, according to a national policy document that provides the basis for the formal conference debate on Wednesday.

The conference will run from September 24 to 28.

Platform, 15

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