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Charm offensive falters

Diane Spencer finds parents giving Gillian Shephard no quarter on funding.

Education Secretary Gillian Shephard's famous charm offensive failed to work on parents at the annual conference of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations in Leicester.

She was given a bumpier ride by the normally respectful delegates last weekend than by teachers whose conferences she attended over the Easter holidays.

At issue was funding and class sizes. Julia Evans, who has an 11-year-old son at Greystoke primary school, near Leicester, told Mrs Shephard that her school faced a Pounds 40,000 budget deficit which could lead to the sacking of two teachers and class sizes of 45. And this was in spite of a favourable OFSTED inspection last autumn, especially of the way the school was managed. Could this be justified, she asked.

Mrs Shephard addressed the broader funding issues, bombarding her audience in Virginia Bottomley fashion with statistics, but failed to satisfy Mrs Evans who, to applause, said she had not answered the question. Mrs Shephard tried again, but drew a chorus of dissent and derisive laughter when she suggested that Leicestershire council might be holding back delegated funds and senior staff at Greystoke might not be taking enough classes.

Delegates were not impressed either by her attempts to fend off the class size issue by referring back to her speech, which listed some 14 factors influencing numbers. These included the school's admission policy, the size of the age group, availability of support staff, non-contact time for heads and their management skills . . .

"Nobody wants huge classes. But the issue of class size is not black and white. What makes a good school and how are children best taught? These are issues of fundamental importance." She said it was hypocrisy to say that strike action was justified in the interests of children.

But it was clear that not all parents were behind NCPTA spokesperson Margaret Morrissey, who was quoted by Mrs Shephard in support of her condemnation of threatened disruption.

Outside the conference, Patricia Wilkes and Kim Moulding, two of a delegation of six from Greystoke school, thought Mrs Shephard's reaction was "very weak". Mrs Wilkes said it was a sign of the times that respected professions were resorting to some kind of action: "Who'd have thought that midwives would work to rule?" They both thought that two days' strike would hardly harm their children in comparison with two years' damaged education caused by cuts. "Teachers have very little option," they concluded. After her speech, Mrs Shephard declined to go into detailed discussions on class sizes and told journalists she would "certainly not" investigate the circumstances of the Leicestershire school: "I would then be running some 25,000 schools in the country. It is down to Greystoke and the council how they manage budgets. "

In contrast, the shadow education secretary, David Blunkett, had a warm welcome from the conference. He seemed to be in favour of legislation for maximum class sizes, but told the press later that he could not fix a figure. More research was needed, and he added: "I am not making policy on the hoof."

He pledged that a Labour government would fund in full teachers' pay awarded by the review body and make a steady investment in education over two terms of office.

During a brief debate, it became clear that the association, which boasts around 11,000 member groups, has few people prepared to take the floor to argue their case. It fell to executive committee members Sean Rogers, from Trafford, and Sheila Naybour, from Clywd, and a former press officer, to propose or second most of them. Only one failed to be adopted.

Delegates opposed the idea of a ballot for grant-maintained schools to opt back into the local authority framework. But they agreed to setting up a working party to look at the issue of local democracy and accountability in GM schools to report to the next conference.

Delegates were also worried about the lack of clarity in Government policy on sex education, particularly the "apparent contradiction" between the health and education departments regarding information on contraception for under-age children, and the accompanying issue of parental consent.

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