Week in perspective;The week in education;Briefing

24th December 1999 at 00:00
This week... l Teachers' part in Tory defection... l Grammar revolt goes quiet... l An outbreak of Dome fever...

IF William Hague is forced to step down from the Tory leadership, either before or after his widely predicted defeat at the next general election, a group of un-named Oxfordshire headteachers will claim a part in his downfall.

The defection to Labour of Shaun Woodward, one of the brightest Tory stars of the 1997 intake, has not only sent shock waves through Hague's parliamentary ranks but has made tolerance a potential defining issue between the major parties.

Woodward's defection was driven by his disagreement with the party line on the Section 28 law - that bans teachers from "promoting" homosexuality in the classroom and which Labour has pledged to abolish. Two weeks earlier he had resigned as shadow minister for London over the issue.

For Woodward, MP for Whitney in Oxfordshire, it was a matter of principle; of putting the interests of his constituents - and in particular pupils - before his party. "Bullying of children in our schools is a very real problem," he told Hague in his resignation letter. "Last year ChildLine had more calls about bullying than any other issue. Having spoken to the headteachers in the constituency, I simply couldn't ignore the evidence and sincerely-held views on this matter.

"Indeed, if the Conservative Party really means it is 'Listening to Britain', then why weren't we prepared to listen to teachers?"

His claims that the Tories had become increasingly less tolerant and more prejudiced under Hague's leadership are likely to form part of a wider assault by Labour in the run-up to the election.

Woodward, a former head of communications for John Major, is expected to play an important part in that attack as a member of his new party's formidable spin machine.

As the Christmas period began - traditionally a quiet time for news - Tony Blair's spin-doctor-in-chief, Alastair Campbell, is said to have urged all Government departments to be ready to put out at least two stories a week during the festive period. The directive is based on Campbell's maxim about the ever-hungry media: "If you don't feed them, they bite you."

One story placed in the Sunday papers was that Education Secretary David Blunkett is backing the introduction of the international baccalaureate in state schools as a more challenging alternative to A-levels.

Less welcome to the spinners at the Department for Education and Employment was another report, in the pro-Tory Sunday Telegraph, that the Government's "campaign" to abolish grammar schools was running out of steam because opponents of selection were struggling to canvass enough support to trigger parental ballots. Biting stuff.

Better news for the Government (see page 1) was the discovery that four in five teachers in schools failed by inspectors believe that standards improved as a result of the policy. The story, based on a study for the National Union of Teachers, did not need much spinning.

As we move towards a new century, the Government's spin-doctors will be preoccupied with the opening of the Millennium Dome - complete with Learning Zone - in Greenwich, hoping to convince sceptics that it is pound;758 million of lottery money well spent. With more than one million tickets already sold, however, it looks as though the public has already made up its mind.

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