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Parents 47: Teachers 16

Today Ruth Kelly celebrates 100 days as Education Secretary. Joseph Lee reports.

After a torrid 100 days as Education Secretary, it was easy to understand why Ruth Kelly might have been clutching a teddy bear for comfort last week.

In fact, the soft toy was a gift from pupils at the Caroline Chisholm school in Northampton.

But from day one, Ms Kelly has been a controversial appointment.

Even this routine tour, intended to showcase the Government's extended schools initiative, was accompanied by criticism that she has not made enough visits to the country's classrooms.

On her appointment, the 36-year-old's meteoric rise to the Cabinet was overshadowed by her links with the ultra-conservative Roman Catholic group Opus Dei.

Its unusual practices of self-mortification and its portrayal in the bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code dominated media coverage, but teachers were more worried that her beliefs might spell the end of liberal sex education.

While that storm blew over, the new Secretary of State faced the challenge of whether to replace A-levels and GCSEs with an untried system just months before an election.

Her unceremonious abandonment of Mike Tomlinson's blueprint created a more lasting resentment among many teachers who lamented the missed opportunity for wholesale change.

A fortnight ago she suffered derision and open dissent at the Secondary Heads Association conference in Brighton, her first speech to a teaching union.

Heads were unimpressed by her defence of the Government's plans for 14-19 education and by Ms Kelly's failure to fund a continual stream of extra demands.

Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said she had been placed in a difficult position and needed more time. "We have had four education secretaries since 1997 but none has been new to the job in the months leading up to an election.

"We have had a Government that's had election jitters across all areas of policy and that has been reflected in education."

The NUT is not happy, how-ever, that it is still waiting to meet Ms Kelly.

She has not yet faced an education correspondent in an interview either.

But then neither teachers nor journalists have been at the forefront of her mind. The mother-of-four has favoured a direct appeal to parent power in her rhetoric. Her ill-fated speech to the SHA mentioned heads and teachers 16 times and parents 47.

There are signs that her approach has worked on its own terms, with cheers from much of the media at the preservation of the "gold standard" exams.

But David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the pendulum had swung too far in favour of parents. "She's in danger of appearing to say that parent power rules OK. Parents on governing bodies don't always express the view of the majority, and individual parents are more concerned about the needs of individual children," he said.

Others fear that pushy and articulate parents will succeed at the expense of children with less support, or those who have no parents. Mr Sinnott said that it may be only after the election and its pressures have passed that Ms Kelly's performance can be properly assessed.

But she did at least earn a glowing report from pupils at Caroline Chisholm school. One said: "She was very nice and asked lots of questions."


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