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The Prince and the inspector

Biddy Passmore on the improbable coalition of people in high places campaigning against 'fashionable' teaching methods.

A distinguished headteacher who met the Prince of Wales was a bit taken aback by his opening conversational gambit. "Chris Woodhead, what a splendid chap he is!" said the Prince. Then, seeing the headmaster at a loss for words, he added hastily: "In many ways".

Prince Charles and HM chief inspector of schools have been running a mutual admiration society for some time now (Mr Woodhead is said to be a regular visitor to seminars at Highgrove.) But so, it appears, have the Prince and the Labour leadership.

And since Labour has, in its turn, stressed its support for Mr Woodhead, keeping the controversial chief inspector in his post and appointing him joint vice-chairman of the standards task force, that makes a cosy nexus at the top of the British establishment in favour of higher standards and a return to the 3Rs.

So when Prince Charles stepped into political controversy at the weekend, telling Sir David Frost in a television interview that his trust had been "picking up the pieces of a somewhat failed (education) system" and advocating a return to features abandoned in the past 30 to 40 years "out of a fashionable approach", his views were dismissed by teacher unions - and backed up by Mr Woodhead, the Prime Minister and education ministers.

As critics have said, the Prince has no personal experience of state education: he himself went to a boarding prep school and Gordonstoun (which he hated) and his sons are at Eton.

But he has long been interested in educational matters - Shakespeare and the state of the English language are two particular passions - and, through the work of his Prince's Trust charities, he has become acutely aware of the desperate plight of young people without basic skills in a world of high unemployment.

Nor is it accurate to say that he is ignorant of state schools. He visits inner-city schools and, perhaps more tellingly, has read 500 reports in the past five years by business leaders who have made educational visits to primary and secondary schools.

Prince Charles's television interview was timed to coincide with the 21st anniversary of the Prince's Trust, which is now a Pounds 30m concern providing training and grants to some 47,000 people in deprived areas. Its projects, such as homework centres and schemes with young volunteers, have inspired much of what the new Government wants to do.

So it is not surprising to find that the Prince's links with the Prime Minister go back some years. They first met at St James's Palace seven years ago, when Tony Blair was Labour's employment spokesman, and have met on several occasions since. One key link is the old friendship between Tom Shebbeare, chief executive of the Prince's Trust, and Peter Mandelson, Blair's close adviser and now a Cabinet minister.

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