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Blunkett on top in Cabinet PR battle

THE Government is having a good week, what with the latest opinion polls giving Labour a 15 per cent lead, and a successful opening election salvo at last weekend's spring conference in Glasgow. A good week for David Blunkett too as the prolonged debate over the Green Paper has brought renewed speculation that he could be a worthy successor to Tony Blair. Even Norman Tebbit had a good word to say about the Education Secretary in his Mail on Sunday column (see below).

Blunkett and John Prescott used the platform in Glasgow to chide the Prime Minister's press secretary, Alastair Campbell, for dismissing comprehensive schools as "bog standard" last week. But it was hard to decipher whether the hidden agenda was about Cabinet conflicts; or if Campbell was sending messages to middle England while Blunkett and Prescott were seeking to appease teachers. Or was the whole exercise orchestrated by the Downing Street PR machine? In any case, Blunkett made clear his irritation, while Campbell refused to retract his remark.

However, the Education Secretary has not emerged unscathed over his plans for secondary education. He was applauded by the Tory press, but Roy Hattersley and Shirley Williams, among others, waded in to defend the comprehensive record and to castigate him for a perceived re-introduction of selection with his plans to expand specialist schools.According to some political pundits, a few of Blunkett's Cabinet colleagues are equally dismayed, as they reckon the proposals could alienate Labour's core voters so close to the expected election in early May.

Local democracy took a bit of knock when the bold Bristol experiment ended in farce, or tragedy, depending on your political standpoint. A ground-breaking referendum ended in voters giving the thumbs-down for a council-tax rise in the Labour-controlled city. So furious teachers face redundancies. (see page 2) The reputation of British teenagers also suffered a blow when a survey of 60,000 15 and 16-year-olds in 30 countries revealed that the UK tops the drinking, smoking and drug-taking league.(The results are reflected in a second survey reported on page 20-21). Lessons can obviously be learned from our European neighbours; and not just about anti-social behaviour.

Another piece of research provided a Government keen on educational standards with yet more embarrassment. In this European Year of Languages, Britons are bottom of the class in learning foreign tongues, according to an EU survey. Despite their self-confessed ignorance, almost a quarter of those polled in the UK said that everyone should know two foreign languages. So perhaps they will vote with their feet for Blunkett's specialist schools after all.

Diane Spencer

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