Mum's the word for Blair

22nd April 2005 at 01:00
Bill Clinton won his second term targeting "soccer moms". Tony Blair hopes school-gate mums will give him a third term.

Not only were mums bombarded with a million "family matters" leaflets this week, they were promised a parent helpline, a science lab at every school and access to a school nurse for every pupil.

Some even encountered the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown double act at their school gates, as part of Labour education day on Wednesday.

But one mum went off-message. Cherie Blair, visiting an Edgbaston infants'

school, confessed "seriously considering" a packed lunch for her son Leo as his school dinners were not "terrific". "Blundering Cherie", the Mail called her, saying her comments "eclipsed" a Labour press conference trumpeting the party's post-Jamie Oliver school meals plan. Others were more forgiving - the Sun saying she would "strike a chord with millions of mums".

The Cabinet's youngest mum, Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, admitted taking nothing for granted as she was interviewed outside a local school on Radio 4's Today programme in her Bolton West constituency, with Opposition leader Michael Howard in town trying to slash her 5,518 majority.

ITV News revealed Ms Kelly's Tory shadow, Tim Collins, with a smaller 3,417 majority, was a target for a Liberal Democrat "decapitation strategy", aimed at unseating top Tories.

Some heads were not happy with the invasion of politicians. Pam Young, head of Hotham primary in Putney, said she had been surprised to see Ken Livingstone, the London mayor, outside her gates. "It puts us in a difficult position because we have been told we are not allowed politicians on our site," she said. "We'd prefer they didn't do that, given the choice."

Others were more welcoming. Monica Cross, head of Highlands school, Enfield, north London, had a visit from the Prime Minister last week, and on Monday Stephen Twigg, local MP and school standards minister, attended assembly. Mr Twigg was a regular visitor and she said the school plans to invite other politicians because it is useful for citizenship lessons.

Mr Twigg is defending a slim majority of 5,500. His seat, once famously Michael Portillo's, is former Tory territory, but the minister told The TES he feared he could lose by up to 2,000 votes because of the war in Iraq.

Despite all that, he still maintained his Tiggerish bounce and was full of charm as he was quizzed by pupils on issues ranging from the unreliability of the local 121 bus to the future of Cyprus, a contentious subject in the north London constituency which has large Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities.

Some of the pupils appeared sceptical, one asking: "Politicians don't stick to their promises - what makes you any different?"

But a 14-year-old student said he had been so impressed he would be persuading his parents to vote Labour.

So how has the Conservatives' week been? Mr Howard landed in hot water for sending his son to Eton rather than his local comprehensive, when the Tories held their education day. "Dumb", shrieked the Mirror over the "Howard Eton gaffe" as the Tory leader, a government minister then, said he might have chosen differently had there been a London state school that he had confidence in. London's Evening Standard cited Pimlico, where Foreign Secretary Jack Straw sent his son and daughter. The row overshadowed Tory plans to make synthetic phonics compulsory in primary schools.

The party suffered further embarrassment after it emerged that a teacher speaking out in an election broadcast about bad behaviour had retired a decade ago, years before Labour came to power. Joe Webster, a Tory councillor in Havering, east London, appeared in the film stacking chairs in what is supposed to be a classroom. "I will choose the Conservative party so I can get on with teaching, rather than simply trying to keep order," he said.

The Lib Dems were expected to focus on their higher education policies yesterday, which include abolishing tuition fees.

Still, education stayed a second-order issue. BBC education editor Mike Baker on BBC News Online blamed his media colleagues for asking questions on "quite different issues" on education days. Whatever its prominence, the Sunday Telegraph's ICM poll gave Labour a 14-point lead over the Tories on education. Those school-gate mums may be making a difference.

Analysis 18

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