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Brothers in arms against long hours

David Blunkett must be heaving a sigh of relief that the days of his annual ritual humiliation are over. He can look forward to a change of job and leave his successor to face the wrath and rudeness of the teacher unions.

But the Education Secretary will leave his post with an unexpected legacy: he has succeeded in uniting the three major unions to fight for a single cause - a rare feat.

His successor will have to deal with a new rallying cry: the call for a 35-hour week, already promised to Scottish teachers. The crunch will come in the autumn, when industrial action is threatened.

Not all teachers are revolting, of course. Many must be squirming at their colleagues antics during this "ghastly annual ritual", as Barry Sheerman, chair of the Commons education select committee, called the Easter conference season.

And who wants to be a teacher? Not many school-leavers according to a survey from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, whose conference was the first to be graced with the presence of a prime minister.

Certainly the leader-writers and columnists couldn't do without teachers at this time of year as they take it in turns to insult or lecture the profession.

Taking a different tack, as usual, was the Independent's David Aaronovitch. He reckoned that the "slurpy, kssy kind of noise around the place is ... the sound of the teachers of England and Wales being loved". He thinks it is not a bad time to be a teacher. "You'd have to be pretty dense not to see how the outlook has improved since, say the early Thatcher days when teachers were, literally, the class enemy." Perhaps the militants will look back on the Blunkett era with nostalgia when faced with his successor.

Whoever it is, heshe will have to deal with concerns about the reformed A-levels. It appears independent schools are snubbing the first exams in the new system. Two-thirds of secondary pupils sat the first "AS" exams in January, but private schools decided to wait and see. This has raised fears of a two-tier system in sixth-forms - at least in the minds of those who regret the passing of the old "gold standard" of traditional A-levels.

Nostalgic types would, however, have been heartened by an announcement from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. It has plans to test children on their ability to write formal letters and diary entries (see below). Every 11-year-old will be asked to do this in the national tests. Apparently e-mails and "txt msging" are ruining our ability to communicate. Perhaps the QCA could also teach oldies how to send text messages on their mobile phones.

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