Spam, Spam Spam and Blunkett

19th September 1997 at 01:00
The Education Secretary has revisited his old school, reports Phil Revell.

Just what is it about Shropshire? Chief inspector Chris Woodhead cut his teeth as an English adviser there, and two of the county's educational worthies have been co-opted on to one of the Government's many task forces. It is known for its innovative approach to matters educational - and on Monday Education Secretary David Blunkett returned to visit his old school.

Not that the Blunkett schooldays were the happiest days of his life.

"It was something like Dotheboys Hall," he said. "Grim and spartan. We had Spam served up as a main course nearly every day."

The school in question was the Royal Normal School for the Blind where Blunkett spent his formative years in the late Fifties and early Sixties. And the occasion this week was a "Celebration of Excellence" organised by Shropshire as part of the consultation process for the Excellence in Schools White Paper.

Mr Blunkett, however, hadn't finished complaining about the food. "I learned my revolutionary fervour here," he recalled. "When we had sausages four times in a week I led a delegation to the head and said that if the staff could eat rump steak, then a diet of sausages for the pupils was unacceptable."

On a more serious note, the school authorities believed that it was "inappropriate" for blind people to aim for qualifications. The young Blunkett was told to become a piano tuner or a typist. This denial of opportunity clearly rankles.

Mr Blunkett also took issue with economist Peter Robinson's claims that economic deprivation was the primary variable in educational performance. "Of course deprivation makes a difference, but it's not material deprivation that stops a child learning, but the deprivation of expectation about what can be achieved," he said.

Mr Blunkett gained his qualifications, but it was a long process: "It took me six years at evening class to get the O-levels and A-levels I needed to get to college."

His old school is now a hotel and conference centre and, he noted, "the food seems to have improved".

Shropshire's RAISE project (Raising Achievement in Shropshire Education) aims to support and spread good practice within the county and Mr Blunkett was interested in its national potential.

"This is the kind of direct and positive local authority support we are seeking," he said. News of the "literacy hour" and the appointment of 200 literacy consultants had been announced that morning, and primary heads were concerned about squeezing an extra hour into the key stage 2 curriculum.

"One clear area where there appears to be consensus," he said, "is in key stages 1 and 2 about the need to free time for literacy and numeracy." "Yes, but what gets cut?" muttered several heads.

Mr Blunkett was unimpressed by weekend tub-thumping about teachers' pay.

"The priority has to be to stop the cuts in the service and that means stopping the redundancies. It means holding and then reducing class sizes. An inflation increase is not a pay freeze. I just ask people not to react to things which might not happen."

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