Royal bad timing

20th June 1997 at 01:00
There was, sadly, little new, surprising or helpful in the Prince of Wales's televised swipe at the education system this week; and its timing was execrable. It was not just that it coincided with the formal honouring of two teachers, Philip Lawrence and Gwen Mayor - who gave their last breath protecting their pupils - and the courageous nursery nurse Lisa Potts, who could very easily have done so. Recognition of such valour in others is surely one of the residual Royal functions, and the Prince could have chosen a better weekend for his all-too-predictable chidings.

Tony Blair's Labour party and Prince Charles have for some time been singing from the same songsheet on the urgent need to raise standards in schools, and to give new hope to deprived and disaffected youth. How far the Prince understands the full nature of the challenge facing schools is unclear - after all, he has little first-hand experience of ordinary schools - but his genuine concern does him credit and there is much common ground between the excellent work of the Prince's Trust and the Government's own plans.

But his remarks must have forced a few grimaces at the Department for Education and Employment, where David Blunkett is working hard to launch a fresh start with teachers. The Education Secretary's strategy is to draw a line under the disputes and recriminations of the past and to unite the profession in a crusade against underachievement.

Michael Bichard, the permanent secretary at the department, spelled this out at the ATL conference in York this week - one of those new-style occasions when civil servants emerge from Sanctuary Buildings and explain government policy in person. What Mr Bichard outlined amounts to a pact for teachers: support and encouragement in the form of more and better training, celebration of success, better leadership and the esteem due to professionals. In return, they are asked to show a more whole-hearted acceptance of the need for monitoring and accountability.

Speaking about this new deal after details of the Prince's interview had been published, the permanent secretary invoked the new "mood of the country". He excoriated cynics and sceptics, and warned: "I sense the country will not easily forgive those who use this debate as a battlefield on which to pursue their personal vendettas."

In his speech, Mr Bichard had already criticised calls for the removal of the chief inspector of schools. So his later reference to vendettas could easily be taken to refer to the continuing bitterness towards Chris Woodhead of much of the profession. But it could also apply to the chief inspector's own campaigning or even to the pronouncements of the Prince of Wales - who counts Mr Woodhead among his mentors.

Could it be that education's senior civil servant, who this week (TES2, page 26) explains how much he relishes his position at the nexus of politics, management and leadership, recognised that, though the Secretary of State has attempted to rein in his outspoken chief inspector, Mr Woodhead's message concerning the dangers of fashionable teaching methods is now being carried by other high-profile voices?

Tony Blair's own close relationship with Prince Charles goes back to the days when he was Labour's employment spokesman. The Prince publicly backed Mr Blair's homework initiative in the run-up to the election and wrote him a long letter after he became Prime Minister.

Michael Bichard will be only too aware of the trouble caused to his department and his former ministerial masters by Chris Woodhead's direct line to 10 Downing Street through John Major's policy unit. So he may well not relish this new link between the chief inspector and the Prime Minister.

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