Floored by fish, saved by Lucy

18th April 1997 at 01:00
The spin doctors may say education is the priority, but events may prove otherwise, discover TES writers.

The party managers decided education was that day's theme. Tony Blair was to deliver his 21-point plan for schools, and David Blunkett was dispatched to have his picture taken with pupils in marginal constituencies. But even the best laid plans of super-slick spin doctors can flounder. "Wet fish," Mr Blunkett ruefully told parents at Westfield school, in Watford, "appear to be the order of the day". The story of fish stocks had dominated the morning's news - and finally was to push education off the next day's front page.

That morning he had called on Denbigh Infant School, in Luton. The photographers, who had been loafing with knees in the air on the child-sized chairs, had gathered their kit when he arrived with his clipboard-wielding minders and the Labour candidates for the Luton constituencies. The school was chosen, said Barbara Ralley, the head, because it had won a curriculum award. There was also the happy coincidence that Margaret Moran, the candidate for Luton South (Labour needs only a 0.6 per cent swing to win) was one of the governors.

For most children here, English is a second language. Two-thirds have parents from Pakistan, the rest from Bangladesh. Mrs Ralley said her committed staff and the effort to link up with local businesses, had contributed to the school's successes. But she is a tireless campaigner herself; she enters the school for competitions, and even donates money she earns as an OFSTED inspector to the school.

On school visits, Mr Blunkett has a distinct advantage over his opposite number in other parties: Lucy, his guide dog. A demonstration of Lucy's skills soon breaks the ice in a classroom of shy infants. "Don't worry, she doesn't bite, but she may give you a big lick," he said. Nonetheless, the children seemed bemused about the identity of the man hoping to become Education Secretary in May. "He's a visitor," one young boy explained.

The second school was Westfield, a comprehensive for 11 to 18 year-olds. This time the object was to talk to sixth-formers and parents and hand out some "activity awards". But Andy Cunningham, the head, was keen to make his concerns known. "There are 10 grant-maintained schools in the Watford area, and most of them have some sort of selection. This has a direct effect on our intake. They all have their own system of admission and it's caused havoc." The parents confirmed that getting a school place was a nightmare for many.

Meanwhile, Education Secretary Gillian Shephard was visiting a grant-maintained school in Yorkshire and reinforcing the attack made by John Major on the Labour leader - which was that Tony Blair had displayed "shameless hypocrisy" for sending his child to a grant-maintained school.

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