Tough talk to impress voters

4th February 2005 at 00:00
Getting tough was the Downing Street message on Tuesday - killing burglars, cracking down on benefit cheats and saving schools from troublesome pupils.

In this pre-election fever, the new Education Secretary Ruth Kelly and her Conservative shadow Tim Collins clashed over whose gang would be toughest tackling thugs.

On Radio 4's Today, Mr Collins re-stated his plans for "turnaround schools" (not a Magic Roundabout spin-off, but re-branded pupil referral units) and forgot who introduced the exclusion appeal committees he now wants scrapped (it was but the Tories when they were last in power).

Ms Kelly had different purposes. She was talking about low-level misbehaviour such as "backchat, mobile phones and texting", problems due to be highlighted by the Office for Standards in Education on Wednesday, as she told BBC Breakfast.

But her main mission was to scupper a potential Tory pre-election attack, by redrawing and delaying controversial plans bequeathed by Charles Clarke and caricatured as forcing troublesome teenagers into top stream grammars.

"Kelly backs down over plans to foist yobs on the best schools" (Daily Mail). She also needed to put her own stamp firmly on education policy, having suffered poor reviews for her first speech and gossip about her involvement with Opus Dei. Headlines such as "Kelly's zero tolerance" (Mirror) and "Backing for heads in blitz on bad behaviour." (Telegraph) suggested both missions were accomplished.

Not everyone agreed. "Boring lessons, Stalinist schools", were blamed for poor behaviour by ex-teacher Francis Gilbert in the Telegraph, while an Independent editorial dubbed Ms Kelly's tough rhetoric "lame populism".

But BBC political editor Andrew Marr told the Six O'Clock News her speech reinforced Labour's message that it was "on the side of the law-abiding majority when it comes to classrooms".

And Tuesday's discipline blitz also reduced the stafbroadcast coverage on Wednesday for the last annual report before the election by David Bell, the chief inspector .

He had already pre-empted his own report with dire warnings about poor citizenship in independent faith schools. Still, the master-spinner may now have met his match.

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