Blunkett apologises for not getting top marks

30th March 2001 at 01:00
Being a Labour or Tory representative at this year's Secondary Heads Association conference in Wales meant constantly having to say you were sorry. Nic Barnard reports on a tale of two penitents

Teachers will have two sets of penitents to choose from when they and the country go to the polls. That, at least, is one conclusion to draw from last weekend's Secondary Heads Association conference in Wales.

Mea culpa, opening speaker David Blunkett told delegates in the grandiose Celtic Manor hotel in Newport. His failure to raise the morale of the teaching profession was his one great regret when he considered his four years in office, he said.

Mea maxima culpa, came back William Hague, closing the conference to a polite but frosty reception two days later. The Tories were as guilty as Labour of taking away teachers' freedoms and tying them up in red tape. But don't worry - things were different now William was in charge.

Blunkett is now in valediction mode - and we can expect more to come as he tours the classroom teachers' conferences at Easter. His speech to heads was partly a plea for patience, and gave a hint that he is clearly beginning to wonder how he will be viewed by posterity. Rumour has it that he has already started asking to see Home Office documents in braille.

"We have probably not done as much as I would have wished to raise teacher morale and the status of the profession," he said. "I wish I could have done more and I hope it will be possible in the years ahead to do that."

The Education Secretary also confessed he hadn't been clear enough in his support for heads on exclusions, and pledged to underline again that they had the right to kick out violent or persistent offenders.

And on what would prove oe of heads' biggest complaints of the weekend - that the new key stage 3 programme threatens to take away their autonomy - he repeatedly reassured them that the proposals were only recommendations.

But to one accusation he remains deaf: he will not concede that many schools are worse off despite Labour's huge investment in education. "It's simply not correct, and people in the room know it isn't," he said.

The truth about Labour's education spending certainly needs unpicking. But his blunt assertion could yet prove damaging.

With an election so close, there was little of substance to offer heads beyond tying up some loose ends. Chief among them was the suggestion of parenting orders for the parents of disruptive pupils.

They could involve banning the parents from school, or getting them to agree to take classes in good parenting, to ensure their children get to school on time, or even to sitting with them in class to keep them in line. Teachers might not be so keen on that last one, Mr Blunkett admitted wryly.

The Government will also spend an extra pound;4 million on a further 50 in-school units for disruptive pupils.

Morale remains a key issue for the profession on the evidence of SHA's conference. Union president Richard Fawcett, in his speech, complained of "accumulated hurt" in the profession caused by the Government's "derision" for teachers.

"Vision and outstanding practice go unremarked upon," he said.

Teachers will hope that Mr Blunkett has sent a clear message to his successor.

Heads had their own valediction to deliver. It came from vice-president Tony Neal and can be summed up thus: we like you a lot, David, and we're going to miss you.

But we're not so sure about all your policies.

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