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Too heavy with elite;Leading Article;Opinion

IT'S A LONG time since we heard the word "elitist" used so provocatively. An old lefty term from the 1970s, those who employed it tended to be against grammar schools, streaming, pushy parents and competitive sport - and probably in favour of Baa Baa Green Sheep.

So it is intriguing to hear it used so emphatically by David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, and Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, to describe the handful of writers, teachers, academics and parents who have dared to suggest that the Government's literacy and numeracy drive may be putting children under unnecessary stress, and excluding them from art, drama, music and more exploratory forms of learning. "Elitist" must be the word which - in planning their counter attack - the spin doctors decided would be most effective against the middle-class liberals who were daring to voice such heretical opinions.

The intemperate tone in the middle section of David Blunkett's CBI speech is striking. This is over-reaction. No one is suggesting that working-class children should be held back or not taught to read and write. Whatever the social background of the child, personal growth should go hand in hand with basic skills: they are not polar opposites.

It may be that some schools or teachers, in their anxiety over the literacy strategy or the league tables, are focusing too narrowly on a few skills, or passing on their tension to the children. This, it is to be hoped, is a temporary aspect of the change process - because it is not the behaviour of confident professional. But where it is happening, parents and others are naturally alarmed. Eleven-year-olds should not be experiencing panic attacks over their tests.

The Government's response demonstrates its determination that the bulk of the population (ie not middle-class liberals) should not lose faith in its strategy. Ministers are in a frustrating limbo: most of the jigsaw pieces are in position, but few of the hoped-for outcomes have yet emerged.

But David Blunkett was ill-advised to let his impatience take over. His outburst captured the headlines, overshadowing the genuinely significant elements in his speech, which outlined the real progress which has been achieved. And his bullying tone leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

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