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Blunkett gets nul points

Clare Dean reports as the heads' conference marks Labour down on style and content. Dull. Uninspiring. Woolly and lacklustre. Hardly the endorsements Labour leader Tony Blair would have wanted from Britain's headteachers for his party's back-to-basics drive on teaching methods.

But while newspaper headlines screamed of the heads' anger as Labour turned its back on progressive teaching, the reality was all very different.

For in the Riviera Centre at Torquay last week the message delivered by David Blunkett, shadow education spokesman, to the National Association of Head Teachers was a watered-down version of the one given to journalists.

And it was one which left many of the delegates wondering just which should be believed - the printed or the spoken word?

There were suggestions the speech had been leaked to journalists a day earlier in a deliberate attempt to soften its impact. And claims too that David Blunkett was a difficult messenger to shoot.

Where the National Union of Teachers had problems with members physically assaulting the blind MP, NAHT members were more than content to deliver a tongue-lashing. Albeit outside the conference hall and privately.

They accused Labour of out-Torying the Tories by engaging too much in the electioneering game and at least one delegate was heard muttering: "At least Don Foster [the Liberal Democrat education spokesman] sounds as though he means it."

Among the leadership in the union there is, however, concern now about the direction Labour is taking - with officials saying the NAHT would be maintaining a safe distance. "As we do from all parties."

Meanwhile suggestions that Labour had undergone some miraculous conversion with the assertion that phonic skills were the bedrock of reading and praise for whole-class maths teaching received short shrift from Robin Squire, the schools minister.

"If there has been a conversion then it must have been pretty recently, " he told journalists. "David Blunkett's predecessor was extremely opposed to testing . . . and that was scarcely light years ago. But it is not what is said by politicians that matters, it is what is happening on the ground.

"The reality is the authorities which have the worst 10 truancy rates and 10 academic achievement rates have been run by Labour for many years and they have tolerated poor standards."

With the new format of conference this year - presentation rather than debate and resolution on policy - David Blunkett admitted he was glad there was no vote at the end of his speech. "I wouldn't want to push my luck.

"I know Don Foster has promised you the Earth, and I love him for that, but we are treading carefully in terms of aspirations and reality. If we promised what we couldn't deliver you wouldn't believe us and you would hold us in contempt. "

As it was many delegates did not believe him anyway. But they saved their real grumbles for Robin Squire: his dismissal of NAHT research that showed class size mattered and his criticism of their opposition to the key stage 2 tests.

To cries of "shame!", he said: "Our view of existing research remains that there is no clear evidence of a simple link between class size and pupils' achievements." His claim that league tables would enable schools to see how they performed in relation to other schools in their area prompted an emphatic no.

But, said Mr Squire: "Neither heads nor governors are in the business of breaking the law. It is now widely recognised that parents and others are entitled to see how their children and their children's schools are performing. Nobody should now be attempting to deny that right."

Asked afterwards what sanctions might be applied if heads and governors did deny parents that right, Mr Squire said it was premature to start thinking like that.

"I don't expect it to be a significant problem. I don't think governors and heads really see themselves as law-breakers."

On that score the minister might be right. Privately many on the NAHT's national council admit that the heads' appeal to governors to refuse to supply test results is a public relations exercise. Maybe it is one from which Labour could learn a few lessons.

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