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Blair holds the strings;Opinion

For a while it seemed the prospect of peace in Ireland might fill the Easter holiday news vacuum that traditionally guarantees the National Union of Teachers' annual seaside shemozzle such disproportionate - and damaging - press coverage.

But by the time the Education Secretary, David Blunkett , had finished speaking in Blackpool normal service had been resumed: a few teachers' representatives had shown themselves no better behaved than their pupils, public confidence in the profession had been dealt a further needless knock, and peace and progress in the classroom seemed a more remote possibility than in Ulster.

That impression, though, is not altogether complete or accurate. First, because it discounts the very genuine personal warmth with which David Blunkett was - and is generally - greeted by teachers. Given the unpopularity among education professionals of much of what Labour has done in the past year, Blunkett's personal esteem remains remarkably high.

Second, because there was an element of artifice involved. The Education Secretary would have been in no doubt about the reception he was to receive from what he called "a minority of a minority". Three years ago he suffered rather more than a minor verbal barracking at the same conference.

Like any teacher, Mr Blunkett knows there are times when it is appropriate to raise his voice. And he will have relished the opportunity to confront militant left-wingers more intent on making trouble than making progress towards higher standards and better lives for their pupils.

His condemnation of shouted slogans and "putting off decent people who want to join the profession" were clearly aimed as much at the "decent people" in the rest of the class - and at teachers and the general public beyond the conference hall - as at his hecklers.

There was a certain amount of disingenuousness in this posturing. In his call for teachers to stop seeing themselves as victims and to regard themselves as partners in change and raising standards, Mr Blunkett showed he understood the profession's need for leadership, inspiration and the fresh start they hoped for last May. But he rather skated over the degree to which, for a decade or more, change has been imposed without any real consultation from the top down: a tendency which, if anything, has increased under this Government.

Gillian Pugh once wisely defined partnership as "a working relationship that is characterised by a shared sense of purpose, mutual respect and willingness to negotiate." Higher standards for all is certainly a purpose most teachers should readily sign up to. But there is a real sense in which many teachers - and not just those who heckled David Blunkett - do not feel respected or valued by the Government or anyone else they are expected to form partnerships with. And Mr Blunkett made it all too clear at the NUT that key parts of the Government's programme - education action zones and literacy hours - are not negotiable.

And yet, as the Education Secretary must know, neither of these will succeed without the goodwill of teachers. What evidently concerns them most about action zones is that pay or conditions will be eroded - though the prospect held out to them is better pay for tackling underachievement effectively.

In fact negotiations on this with the unions will ultimately be necessary since it will be very difficult indeed for any action zone forum to impose changes in conditions of employment. The Bill is quite explicit that national pay and conditions cannot be varied without the agreement of governing bodies in each of the schools concerned. That is most unlikely if it promises industrial strife - something most governing bodies have neither skills nor taste for.

Union leaders are noticeably more emollient towards Labour's policies than their rank and file. Pragmatists to a man, they understand the futility of direct confrontation with the Blair Government with its massive majority, and may indeed hope for some kind of partnership that will give them more influence in policy-making.

But David Blunkett is not his own master when it comes to education policy or partnerships. Given education's high priority in the New Labour project, he also has to reckon with the Prime Minister's office - directly advised by, among others, the chief inspector of schools and heavily influenced by Blunkett's Blairite number two, Stephen Byers. This may explain why union leaders reportedly find Mr Blunkett less accessible or forthcoming than his predecessor Gillian Shephard, and why some are going out on a limb to demonstrate their support for action zones for fear of being dismissed as irrelevant.

Before last year's election, one journalist wrote in the Observer that, as Prime Minister, Tony Blair should also make himself education secretary, so critical was the role of education in Labour's overall strategy. There are growing signs that he has done so, in all but name. And that journalist - Andrew Adonis - joins the Number 10 policy unit on Monday as an adviser on education.

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