Politicians beware. When the good folk of Bolton rise up, listen. Marks Spencer uses the town as a barometer of the nation - if it works in Bolton it will work. Warring parties take heed, after all there's two marginal seats at stake.
Tom Sackville, Conservative MP and Home Office minister, held Bolton West by 1,099 votes at the last election. It is one of the key seats Labour must win. Ruth Kelly, the prospective Labour candidate, an economist with the Bank of England, has the bearing of a dangerous opponent, but Boltonians appear not to be easily swayed.
The Bolton 400 may sound like the wrongfully imprisoned, but they claim to be unfairly underfunded. Every primary and secondary head in the town met before Christmas to discuss funding. They called for sound school buildings, a computer in every classroom, textbooks for every child, good entrants to the teaching profession, excellent training, more classroom support, respite from change. It was the largest meeting on education the town had seen.
Last week they invited the prospective parliamentary candidates to The Bolton 400 Education Debate in BoltonTown Hall.
Frank Vigon, secretary to the Bolton 400 Action Committee and head of Turton High School, one of the 100 top-performing schools nationally, said: "The Government gives snapshots of schools' performance, but what they do not acknowledge is the day-to-day struggle of managing with poor materials. The real problem is underfunding and large classes."
The education and arts budget in Bolton has been reduced by Pounds 6.25m over the past three years. Last year more than 50 per cent of Bolton's pupils were taught in classes of over 30.
As the town also has some poor Victorian school buildings delegates were unimpressed when Labour fudged over replacing them, talking of public and private partnerships. David Crosby, who is contesting Bolton North East, which Peter Thurnham, recently defected to the Liberal Democrats, won by only 185 votes for the Tories at the last election, met silence when he said Labour could not promise it could "build in one term of Parliament what the Tories have destroyed in four".
Labour's Ruth Kelly got a similar response for her party's proposal to set up literacy summer schools for under-achieving 11-year-olds. "Too little, too late and anyway the kids won't turn up for it," said primary head Chris Caldwell.
She earned mild applause when she said that Labour would find ways of valuing long-serving teachers. When asked if Labour would scrap pension rules preventing early retirement for teachers, she said Labour would make the profession more attractive, so that teachers didn't "want to walk out of the door at 50". Labour would introduce sabbaticals, a new higher grade for skilled teachers who wanted to stay in the classroom and make sure that the funding formula did not discriminate against long service. Cynicism ruled.
Where Labour and the Lib Dems fielded all their candidates for the debate, Tory Tom Sackville appeared without his prospective parliamentary colleagues. Eyes rolled and delegates snorted into their programmes as he proceeded to say that our education system would have benefited from the kind of control exerted by Napoleon, that we had moved too far away from traditional teaching and learning and that spending per pupil had risen by 47 per cent in real terms under the Tories. One governor said: "If there's been a 47 per cent increase in real terms since 1979 then it must have come through on a very fast express. "
The embattled MP added class size was important to good education but not fundamental. It did not help that he looked like the Eton College pupil he once was. He failed to impress crop-haired James Gardiner, a parent governor at Eagley County Infant School, a wavering Tory voter who said: "Do you hold us all in such contempt that you do not take a real interest in our concerns? "
The dark-haired brooding Frank Vigon looked on like an Old Testament prophet on Judgment Day. As things drew to a close he said: "If you have been sitting here listening to politicians and feeling frustrated then take comfort from the fact we got them here. None of them dared not to come."