Kiss and sell mission

Clare Dean

"I've got the underwater search lads doing the drains. I'll get the dogs in here later."

Four hours before the Prime Minister's visit and Small Heath grant-maintained school in Birmingham was abuzz with security men and police in blue overalls.

Outside, building contractors finished laying paving slabs. Cecil Knight, headteacher, laughed and said they would probably crack the minute John Major's armour-plated car pulled up on them. A Springer spaniel bounded into the new steel and glass entrance to the school inaugurated this week by the PM as a technology college.

Exhibition stands were sniffed and cleared. Flowers were delivered. Potted shrubs were placed in strategic positions.

Down the road at Birmingham's International Convention Centre, 300 GM heads and governors gathered for a keynote address from Mr Major. Was it to be a rescue package for opt-out schools or a bright new future of self-governance?

Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, has been noticeably quiet in recent months about opting out. This week she stood beside Mr Major as he underlined his desire of independence for all state schools. His ambition that all schools should become self-governing was no distant aspiration, he said. "Work on this is proceeding rapidly. You can expect to hear more of this as soon as we are ready."

"You ain't seen nothing yet" was very much the theme of his speech. His 12 measures to reinforce standards and boost the GM sector were just a foretaste of what is to come. Teacher training, homework, the expansion of "popular" schools and standards in universities are all within his sights.

"On all these, further announcements will come in weeks and months ahead; nor is today's instalment anything like the final word in the moves towards full self-government for our schools."

The jury is still out on whether it will be enough to entice more schools down the GM route, but back at Small Heath there were cheers for the glorious leader. In the public library that adjoins the school, noses pressed up to windows heavy with condensation eager for a glimpse of the Tory party leader.

Then, with a kiss for Gillian Shephard, he was gone. The paving slabs remained intact.

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