Borrowed feathers

ON a visit to Norfolk last week, Education Secretary David Blunkett spent the night at the home of his Conservative predecessor Gillian Shephard.

Given the frequency that each accused the other of stealing their clothes before the general election, it is a wonder Mr Blunkett did not emerge the next morning in a dress.

But while Mrs Shephard is said to be impressed by Mr Blunkett's performance in her old job, there are signs that clear blue water is starting to open up between Labour and the Conservatives on education.

Tory leader William Hague has hit the headlines in recent weeks with his plans to free schools from what remains of local authority control and his attacks on education's "liberal elite" and Labour's targets to cut school exclusions.

Mr Hague - and it is he, rather than his education spokesperson, Theresa May, who is behind the recent announcements - has struck a chord with teachers fed up with central diktats from a Government who seem hell-bent on piling more and more pressure upon schools. Indeed, many of the Tories' pronouncements seem to have been lifted straight from teacher union pres releases.

As a target of Tory advances, teachers find themselves in the rather odd company of fox hunters, the hang 'em and flog 'em brigade and English nationalists.

Despite this, the Conservatives' new-found enthusiasm for education should be welcomed. For too long teachers themselves have been the only voice of opposition to Labour.

Yet, if Mr Hague really wants to become the teacher's friend he will have to put our money where his mouth is. His guarantee, if elected, to reduce taxes as a proportion of national income would mean less money to spend on reducing class sizes, hiring teachers and improving discipline.

To take just one example, Mr Hague said that his plan to send unruly pupils to "sin-bins" would be paid for out of existing budgets. But he has yet to say who will lose out.

With perhaps only a year until the next election, the Tories show signs of improvement. But so far, their policies amount to little more than opportunistic attacks on government weak spots. They need to do more serious thinking if they are to have a suit of education clothes they can truly call their own.

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