Blair's honeymoon on the wane

26th September 1997 at 01:00
On the eve of Labour's annual conference Frances Rafferty gives the Government 10 out of 10 for effort, but finds teachers disenchanted by the party's spending plans.

Tony Blair's "education, education, education" speech last year in Blackpool was the triumphant oration of an Opposition leader smelling victory. Education, he said, would be his Government's passion.

Next week in Brighton, Mr Blair returns to his party's conference as Prime Minister, with five months of government to defend.

He can hardly be accused of reneging on his commitment to education. David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, and his team, have worked flat out since May 1, producing initiative after initiative and setting up task force after task force. On day 67 they produced a major White Paper setting out the Government's far-reaching plans to raise standards and create new categories of schools.

One of the most contentious, and according to Mr Blunkett, difficult decisions has been the ending of free university education and the abolition of the maintenance grant. Potentially it is this issue that could give the Government the most trouble during the education debate.

Tomorrow the party decides the final form and order of conference amendments. And while many of the motions put forward from the constituencies will not be heard, they do give an indication of the concerns of Labour's grassroots.

"This conference believes that an entry fee will cause inequality in higher education, introducing an elitist system based on ability to pay. This conference resolves to oppose any form of entry fee for undergraduate students," says the motion from Bethnal Green and Bow constituency.

A spokeswoman for the Trades Union Congress said: "We very much regret the introduction of fees, but also recognise there is already inequality in the system. So while we believe education should be funded through taxation, we have said we are prepared to work with the Government on this one."

Labour has, somewhat hopefully, tried to avert dissent this week By announcing an extra Pounds 165 million for higher education.

Another area of friction is with the public-sector unions who are not happy with Labour's intention to keep to the Conservative government's spending targets. Teachers, nurses and doctors have been told not to expect a pay rise above inflation. After waiting 18 years for a Labour government they were hoping for something rather better.

Another criticism has been of the "naming and shaming" of 18 schools which were deemed not to have made progress since failing their inspection. From Colne Valley: "We believe this to be a tactic which can only induce humiliation and demoralisation."

A number of motions address the problems of further education, some calling for the abolition of the FE Funding Council and many for a reversal of cuts the sector has suffered. The Government does not intend to close the FEFC, though it does expect it to devolve its powers.

Whatever dissent surfaces in Brighton, opinion polls show Tony Blair's popularity has not diminished. And the disarray of the Conservative party since defeat has meant the Government has not been troubled by effective opposition. Indeed it has been the Tory press that has most criticised Stephen Dorrell's performance as shadow education secretary.

Although the papers and the public may still be enjoying the Blair honeymoon, the teaching profession's response to the Government's record is mixed.

Chris Keates, regional officer of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "In Tony Blair's speech to the TUC, his one line about education was that he was going to raise standards and would do it by getting rid of incompetent teachers. If he wants his plans to work, he is going to have to take teachers with him. We were criticised by the last Government and we're being criticised by this one."

She said she was also sceptical about the Government's promise of consultation. "It was an invited audience that met Estelle Morris (education minister) to discuss the White Paper. If it had been a real consultation then surely the meeting should have been open?" Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said Chancellor Gordon Brown had to be commended for finding extra money for education, but added that little had been said about the crisis in FE:"This will have to be addressed if Welfare to Work and raising the skills of the over-16s is going to happen."

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "Labour's record since May 1 has been good on the whole, but the tendency to concentrate on the alleged failures and inadequacies of teachers has not been helpful.

"My advice would be for ministers to concentrate on a few really good initiatives, resource them properly and keep pursuing them as a long-term strategy, and not to get side-tracked into a blaze of numerous activities. "

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