Protests from the heart of England

Josephine Gardiner

Josephine Gardiner met God and some ordinary mortals on the FACE march last weekend.

Foreign tourists wore bemused smiles as they watched thousands of protesters march in the autumn sun through central London on Saturday. The procession, as sober as a post-prandial crocodile from a Victorian seminary, seemed to display the rich tapestry of eccentric and unlikely alliances generated by grassroots politics in Britain.

Crowds of children, some as young as five, carried placards which advertised the Socialist Workers Party and asked why Prince William's classes were so much smaller than their own. Their parents, dressed prudently in pastel anoraks against the forecast rain, explained that they tried if possible to tear the SWP bit off.

Younger siblings slumped in pushchairs bearing slogans such as "Shephard fund our flock". The red flag of the Oxfordshire Governors Association was followed by another belonging to the West Midlands Marxist party, while the heroic art of the National Union of Mineworkers (north-east area) banner lent a sense of history to the dozens of home-made versions from shire county schools. The shocking pink FACE (Fight Against Cuts in Education) stickers clashed with everything.

But if Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, still thinks that FACE is a sinister far-left plot to hijack the hearts and minds of Britain's staffrooms, then he knows something these people don't. As the march set off from the Embankment, the leafleteers from Militant, the SWP and the Workers' Revolutionary party ("force the TUC to call a general strike") were left behind. Few completed the long walk to Hyde Park.

Far more typical was Dawn Woods, a parent and classroom assistant who had come all the way from Chesterfield that morning with her three children because "my school, Grassmoor primary, has lost a teacher and several special needs helpers and I'm worried that it's going to get worse."

Tim Sander, 33, is the teacher Grassmoor lost. He said: "It's not only teaching hours that have been cut - caretaking and dinner staff are suffering. Derbyshire's director of education says cuts next year will be the same or worse."

Tim Sander insisted that FACE had no party-political agenda. "I'm not worried about it being taken over by the far Left, it's just not an issue. Personally I'm unimpressed by all three parties on education."

These views were echoed again and again by other demonstrators, who talked about teaching classes of more than 40 in Portakabins, worries about jobs and mortgages, children coming home tired and cross because they couldn't get their teacher's attention - certainly not about revolution.

Ted Bateman, 56, from Hastings had never been on a demonstration before. He heard about FACE through his local paper. Five years ago, his experience and seniority had made him too expensive for his school to keep. "Since then I have had no proper employment. I just feel trashed and betrayed. I've been mindlessly voting Tory for years, now I think I'll vote Liberal," he said with the air of a man taking a dangerous leap into radical politics.

At the other end of the age spectrum was 13-year-old Henry Metcalfe, running up and down the line of marchers, assiduously handing out FACE leaflets. "I go to a private school, Alleyn's in Dulwich, so all this doesn't really affect me, but I'm against the Tory cuts in education, it's going to lead to more unemployment," he said.

Perhaps the most unlikely protester was Raphael De Santos, an investment banker working for Morgan Grenfell, the merchant bank. He was here with his family, and said that he always attended demonstrations against "social injustice of any kind". No, he didn't see any contradiction with his job, "actually I used to be a member of the International Marxist Group".

As we made our way up Piccadilly, a gap in the crowd revealed a tall, lone figure holding an NUT banner that said simply "Where are you, Doug?". The NUT branches, however, were as much in evidence as those of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. Outside the Ritz, hotel staff stood watching. Mr Rycell, the commissionaire, said he supported the demonstrators. "Education definitely needs more money. It's the future, isn't it?" One of the first speakers at Hyde Park was Mick Brookes of the National Association of Head Teachers, pledging support for FACE. The NAHT's presence alone should succeed in exorcising any lingering suspicions about FACE's hidden features; it certainly made the absence of official support from the NUT more striking. Later, Sophie Blower, aged 12, delivered such a confident and accomplished speech (without notes) that Bob Jelley, FACE's national secretary, warned her that "the last time I heard anyone so young speak like that they ended up as Secretary of State for Wales" - a reference to the juvenile William Hague's debut at a Tory party conference in 1976 aged 15.

The NASUWT's Nigel de Gruchy also fired off a stirring broadside at John Major's "attempt to breathe life into the corpse of GM schools", and instructed the Tories to attend to the "evidence of the marketplace" that class sizes do matter - "look at the independent sector, the main selling point is small classes."

The celebrity speeches were punctuated by a litany of horror stories from teachers and parents, including one teacher from Northgate primary in Nottinghamshire, the first school Gillian Shephard visited after she became Education Secretary. "She was impressed then. Now we have classes of 38 and we can't move. Please, Mrs Shephard, come back to Northgate, we'd love to show you round."

Bob Jelley, the FACE organiser, sounded happy on Monday. Numbers, estimated at between 8,000 and 11,000, were slightly down compared to the March demonstration, but more counties were represented. He also said that news of Tony Blair's announcement on Sunday was a "wonderful bonus - it's historic, the first time a major political party has committed itself to a maximum class size".

But there was one member of the loony Left in Hyde Park on Saturday, a young man demanding to know why Mr Major and Mrs Shephard were not there listening to the speeches. I asked him his name. "My name? God," he said earnestly.

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Josephine Gardiner

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