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Sheffield's favourite son upsets faithful

Times have changed since David Blunkett, according to some, the next Secretary of State for Education barring a sudden earthward change of direction by Comet Hale-Bopp, was leader of Sheffield council.

Headteachers gathering in the city last week remember him as a left-winger committed to high spending on public services, including education.

Mr Blunkett would have found an apprehensive audience at the Powerful Schools conference of primary heads in his home city last week if he had not been forced to cancel the engagement because of other more pressing concerns.

"Some of the things he has said in the past few months have been quite worrying," said one head. "It's the rhetoric that scares me. He's not averse to a bit of teacher-bashing."

Asked what they hoped for from a Labour government, another head summed up the general feeling: "Cash, and a little understanding."

Last year, the Labour-controlled council asked for Pounds 43 million to help to repair its schools, and was given just Pounds 4m. Crumbling schools are a regular feature in the local media.

The continuing squeeze led last summer to a public row when teachers' unions accused the council of diverting money away from education and into other services. Hopes now rest on the "new deal" being promoted by the city's education director, Jonathan Crossley-Hall. This has already resulted in Pounds 500,000 extra for school repairs and a shift of Pounds 750,000 more into school budgets.

The extra money for schools has taken its toll on other services, however, including adult education and the youth service.

Around 800 jobs will be lost this year, including 100 in the education department.

Mr Crossley-Hall told the heads that the new challenge was to improve "honest dialogue" with parents, including improving the information they are given about their children's school work.

"There are still too many annual reports which talk about children making fairly good progress and other generalisations," he said.

"Getting parents on board is one of the key tasks now, especially in disadvantaged areas."

But the future of education in Sheffield, as elsewhere, may now largely depend on the man who once led the city's radical council in its battles over Government spending limits.

John Botham was a member of Mr Blunkett's team, which recommended a gradual increase in spending on education in its recent report on literacy. He is in no doubt what is needed to raise standards. "You're not going to do anything just by changing the systems," he told the conference. "It needs money."

The Sheffield heads remained sceptical. "There's been no indication that the Labour party is going to change anything much," said Angela Anwyl, head of Park Hill primary school near Sheffield's city centre. "I don't think they have any clear policies.

"In the old days David Blunkett would never have gone along with the opting-out idea. Yet now his party leader sends his son to a grant-maintained school."

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