Middle England turns against Blair over cuts

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
On Saturday some of the middle- England voters who swept Tony Blair into power marched to a different tune in Shrewsbury.

A demonstration against education cuts attracted 4,000 people last week, shutting the centre of Shropshire's county town for the morning.

Shropshire's schools face cuts of Pounds 3 million, with a further Pounds 7m being lost to other county services.

County education officer Carol Adams told marchers that the cuts would devastate the school system.

"It will result in class sizes of 40 to 50 children in primary schools, less help for those with special needs and, on average, a cut of five teachers in every Shropshire secondary school."

School governors in the county have unanimously agreed to refuse to implement the cuts.

The county has traditionally funded education above levels recommended by central government and paid for this with savings elsewhere in the budget. This is no longer possible and local government reorganisation has exacerbated the problem.

A new unitary authority, Telford and The Wrekin, has taken a third of Shropshire's community-charge-payers, but only 8 per cent of the land area. Shropshire is the largest inland county but has the smallest population with many rural schools. This "sparsity factor" makes services such as school transport and meals extremely expensive.

One headteacher, Mike Thomas, of St Leonard's junior school, Bridgnorth, said: "There is no acknowledgement whatsoever of the costs of running an authority in a rural area."

David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, has close links with the county and Ms Adams and Derek Woodvine, its chair of education, exploited these to the full last Thursdaywith a private meeting in Mr Blunkett's Sheffield constituency, where they were given time to plead their case.

Mr Blunkett then went on to Chequers with other ministers to discuss the local authorities funding settlement.

This week there was a further meeting between Mr Blunkett and three county headteachers.

And a spokesman for the Department for Education and Employment said it was investigating the concerns that had been expressed to see whether anything further needed to be done.

Stephen Dorrell, the Opposition education spokesman, said Shropshire's experience was being repeated in other shire counties. "Labour raised expectations which it has not been able to satisfy. What was dishonest was giving people the impression that they would be absolved from the need to make hard choices about spending."

Two of the county's Labour MPs are also backing the campaign.

Today protesters were due to carry a parental petition in a child's coffin to Downing Street, while teachers and officials met in Central Hall, Westminster.

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