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Parties wheel out big guns to win over heads

Blunkett, Hague and Kennedy seize the chance to set out their campaign stalls in Newport. Nicolas Barnard reports.

THE heavyweight line-up of politicians planning to visit Newport in the next few days can mean only one thing: a general election is looming.

The Secondary Heads Association's annual conference starts in the Welsh town today and will be the last major education event before Tony Blair - foot-and-mouth permitting - fires the starting gun for a May 3 poll.

David Blunkett - strongly tipped for a post-election move - will open proceedings today followed tomorrow by a rare education speech from Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy and on Sunday by Tory leader William Hague. The association will use the occasion to launch its own 12-point election manifesto.

Mr Blunkett can expect a hard time from heads who think he has failed to address recruitment problems or deliver extra resources to schools. But Mr Hague is also likely to get a rough ride over his free schools policy, despite being introduced by a rare fan, his former teacher (now a head), Robert Godber.

Mr Kennedy is the one most likely to win over delegates with lashings of sympathy over recruitment and his policy of adding a penny to income tax for education - worth pound;3 billion a year. "We recognise that staffing levels are at crisis point and headteachers are being forced to come up with 'sticking-plaster' solutions," Mr Kennedy will tell heads. His speech ollows his party's resolution at last weekend's spring conference to pay trainee teachers a full salary and cut red tape and class sizes.

Phil Willis, the Lib Dem's education spokesman at the spring conference, gave a taste of the combative approach the party will adopt in the election campaign. He said that Labour had "a poorer record than its predecessors" - the largest classes for 20 years, lower spending (on schools) as a share of GDP than under John Major, and "to crown it all, four-day weeks and strike action reminiscent of Callaghan's winter of discontent".

There was a hint of a farewell in Mr Blunkett's speech last weekend at a governors' conference in Doncaster as he thanked them "for the support you've given me in what has sometimes been a quite difficult four years". The Government had made an"enormous number of changes and great demands", he admitted; but for good reason. He attacked "contradictor" critics who "want even more specification about how ... to teach literacy or numeracy, then in the next breath say that government is too centralist".

He hinted at a less centralist approach in a second term. But teachers got a different message from his former lieutenant, Stephen Byers, tipped in some quarters to take over.

In an interview with The Times, the current trade and industry secretary said modernisation in health and education remained "the real challenge". The pace of change shows no sign of slowing.

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