Blair faces conflict with new NUT leader over city academies

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair will face a showdown with the new moderate leader of Britain's biggest teachers' union over his flagship city academy school programme.

Tony Blair will face a showdown with the new moderate leader of Britain's biggest teachers' union over his flagship city academy school programme.

Speaking on his first full day in office after being elected to succeed Doug McAvoy as general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, Steve Sinnott said that the union would campaign against extending the programme, describing the policy as "wrong" and "misguided". The Prime Minister's plan to increase the number of academies - privately sponsored inner-city schools run independently with the help of government cash aid - from 60 to 200 by the end of the decade will be put to the Cabinet this morning.

However, Mr Blair confirmed the number would definitely expand in a Commons exchange with Michael Howard, during which the Conservative leader attacked him for limiting the freedom of academy status to only a handful of schools.

Mr Sinnott, a moderate centre-left candidate in the NUT elections and the first former comprehensive school pupil to lead his union, said he welcomed "the enormous amount of money" that had been spent on the academies already set up. But he added: "This does go only to a handful of schools while - in the same local authorities where they are set up - there are other schools that are in desperate need of money.

"I have absolutely no doubt that if the Government does press ahead with its programme, we will launch a strong campaign in opposition to the academy programme."

He said the decision to take the academies out of the local authority network was "misguided" and the move to withdraw them from the national pay agreement was "again wrong and misguided".

However, he did offer ministers an olive branch by saying that he would seek talks with them over the agreement to reduce teachers' workload - which was signed by the Government and the other five teachers' unions.

The NUT has been left out in the cold and barred from negotiations since refusing to sign the deal - under which teachers are given guaranteed time for marking and preparation in exchange for allowing classroom assistants to take control of lessons.

Mr Sinnott said that it had "been extremely damaging" to have ministers refusing to talk to representatives of the largest teachers' union, saying: "I think this is not something we can be proud of. It is something that the Government needs to work with us in changing, indeed in reversing." But he said that he would not sign the workload agreement.

Meanwhile, in the Commons, Mr Blair branded the Conservatives' education policy as "elitist, divisive and reactionary" by offering all schools the opportunity to select their pupils. "I have to say to you I think there is indeed an expansion of city academy schools, that are mixed ability schools, that service their local area and will give the opportunity for children from some of the most disadvantaged areas to get high-quality education," he added.

The angry exchanges came after Mr Howard faced embarrassment as he was forced to concede there had been a "mistake" over the case of a constituent he had used to highlight hospital waiting lists.

Last week Mr Howard lambasted Mr Blair over the case of a woman he said had been warned of a 20-month wait for radiotherapy treatment. But he said yesterday: "She was told 20 months. She should have been told 20 weeks - five months."

Mr Blair called on him to apologise but Mr Howard insisted: "If you and your party think a five-month wait for treatment for someone with a life-threatening illness is something to boast about, you are even more out of touch with opinion in this country than anyone would have thought."