Mr Blair forced to face friendly fire

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
Education Secretary Charles Clarke returned from his Easter break to launch two direct hits - on the National Union of Teachers for planned test boycotts and on local education authorities for squirreling away schools cash.

By dropping hints that LEAs might be stripped of their funding role, he attracted murmurs of approval from the Daily Mail and The Times.

That was before some devastating friendly fire. "Even your trusted aides are against you, Mr Blair," crowed the Mail on Sunday as it published a "blistering" letter to parents, signed jointly by the head and chair of governors of Gospel Oak primary school in Camden, north London. The letter detailed a series of cuts the school faced with a pound;127,000 budget shortfall.

That the chair of governors was Cherie's media adviser Fiona Millar, a veteran Labour press officer and partner of the chief spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, breathed new life into the funding story.

Tony Blair's monthly press conference on Monday was intended to shift the focus from Iraq back to home, but despite "an otherwise assured performance", the Guar-dian said he "wobbled over the school budget crisis".

Even school standards minister David Miliband, who normally gives assured TV performances, seemed uncomfortable when fielding questions from Jon Snow on Channel 4 News that night.

It takes some doing to turn a pound;2.7 billion funding increase into a catalogue of cuts. But the Department for Education and Skills tried to change too much at once - it was crazy to shift Standards Fund money into general budgets with an untested new funding formula and rising pay and pension bills.

And as ministers seek to shame councils, they should also investigate why it all went so pear-shaped, so that it does not happen next year.

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