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Labour stumbles in four-day event

Crisis, what crisis? Faced with doom-laden predictions of schools being forced on to four-day weeks because of a dearth of teachers, minister Estelle Morris insisted no one's education would suffer, adding that talk of a recruitment crisis was exaggerated.

But to the media, intent on making the schools crisis the week's big issue, this was all grist to the mill. By the weekend they were headlining the National Union of Teachers' threat to strike unless schools hit hardest by staff shortages were put on a four-day week. The London borough of Barnet was reported to be ready to send in a team of school inspectors to take classes at Christ Church secondary in North Finchley. And a survey by the Independent found evidence of schools where classes had been doubled and heads forced to teach full-time.

On Sunday, the story was given a fresh twist when the Prime Minister - eye firmly on a spring general election - told the BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme that staff in tough inner-city schools weresaints" and "heroes". This coincided neatly (and no doubt deliberately) with a report in the Sunday Times which claimed ministers were planning "golden handcuffs" worth up to pound;15,000 over three years for new teachers in areas with recruitment problems.

But, for most teachers, a big pay boost this year seems unlikely, with reports that ministers will sanction a basic 3.5 to 3.7 per cent pay award, scarcely above inflation of 3.2 per cent. Teachers' leaders predicted recruitment "meltdown".

On Tuesday, Mr Blair travelled to Bristol to herald"a huge investment" in education and skills after the election. Tory leader William Hague, countered with a national poster campaign.

One of the posters says: "You've paid the tax - so where are the teachers?." "People aren't fooled any more by Tony Blair, the great pretender," said Mr Hague Mr Blair is unlikely to be troubled by such attacks. But a winter staffing crisis in schools may yet cause panic in Downing Street.

Jeremy Sutcliffe

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