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Prime time for a demonstration

The opening of a Pounds 6m school did not turn out quite as John Major intended. Michael Prestage reports. When it was all over and John Major and his cavalcade had departed from Bishop Fox's School, Taunton, principal Jeremy Harvey returned to his office to find a bottle of booze and a mock report card from staff.

Under the subject of political education it said: "Jeremy Harvey has been made to think a bit more about this subject this week and we think he is making progress."

For the Prime Minister the visit was a public relations stunt that backfired. The Scottish local election results the night before had been a disaster and earlier in the week Somerset County Council had been told it would not be allowed to break its government-imposed spending limit. Compulsory redundancy notices for teachers will be on their way.

What should have been a happy day marking the school's move to a new Pounds 6 million building on a green-field site turned into a media circus focusing on a 200-strong demonstration against cuts in Somerset. The protesters greeted Mr Major with the chant "Sack the Tories. Not the teachers".

That the crowd included pupils from the school, parents and local teacher union representatives, added to Mr Harvey's headache. Neil Marshall, 16, who was with the crowd, dismissed the Prime Minister's visit as a charade. He said: "I think it is disgusting we have had to miss school to act in front of that bastard. Major shouldn't be sacking teachers."

Mr Harvey though was not the only one with worries. One young political agitator was concerned about demonstrating. Was it the phalanx of police that faced them? The fear of possible retribution from the school? "If my mother finds out I'm here she'll murder me. I'm supposed to be at the dentist, " said the 14-year-old.

The prelude to the Major visit had been a string of politically-inspired stories in the local press. Feelings were running high that Mr Major had chosen to visit an untypical school. There were suggestions that Bishop Fox pupils taking part in the demo would be suspended - not true - and that when pupils voted on who should open the school Mr Blobby triumphed and Mr Major scored a duck - true.

Privately, a few senior staff at the school thought a Royal might have been a safer bet for the official opening. All at Bishop Fox's admit that the new Pounds 6m buildings were not representative of schools in Somerset.

"I've had a few sleepless nights over this," admitted Mr Harvey. "But we didn't ask for him to visit. His office contacted us. We needed someone for the official opening and he is our Prime Minister. You have to take the job rather than the person."

He said the visit had included a private meeting with union representatives and senior staff. "It gave us a chance to put the case for all the hard pressed teachers in the county. We are part of a family of schools. We are all facing difficult pressures."

The school would have liked attention to focus on its wide-ranging arts programme which is directed by an artist part funded by the South West Arts Council. Pupils have created decorated windows on the theme of the weather, tiled panels and a long mosaic in the courtyard. It was not to be.

There was some amusement among staff when Mr Major asked whether all pupils do design technology only to be told it is compulsory under the national curriculum.

Simon Bowditch, the ATL representative who met the Prime Minister, said: "He trotted out a lot of the party political line we expected but he listened carefully and gave an indication he would listen to the application to raise the spending limit in Somerset. I think the visit was always likely to be a party political gesture."

Mr Major told the waiting media that, taking spending per child and school equipment as the two measures, then the Conservatives have increased spending by 50 per cent over and above inflation since coming to power.

So now you know.

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