NUT leader's attack caps Kelly's disastrous 100-day war with the teaching profession

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Ruth Kelly's controversy-strewn first 100 days in office were crowned last night when a teacher's leader branded her the worst Education Secretary since Labour was elected in 1997.

Ruth Kelly's controversy-strewn first 100 days in office were crowned last night when a teacher's leader branded her the worst Education Secretary since Labour was elected in 1997.

Hilary Bills, the headteacher of a West Midlands primary school, who takes over as president of the National Union of Teachers today, said Ms Kelly was "a huge disappointment".

Her comments are a major embarrassment for the union at a time when its new general secretary, Steve Sinnott, is trying to smooth relationships with the Government after two years in which it has been frozen out of all negotiations with ministers.

Ironically it was Charles Clarke, as Ms Kelly's predecessor, who barred the union from negotiations after it refused to sign a deal to reduce teachers' workload by allowing classroom assistants to take over their lessons, the very issue which has triggered a ballot of NUT members on strike action today.

Mrs Bills, who was speaking at the union's annual conference in Gateshead, said: "She [Ruth Kelly] doesn't come over as being well-briefed. The whole way she talks to teachers is with a patronising attitude."

She said that she was most upset by Ms Kelly's decision to scrap plans for a new diploma to embrace GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications, a move teachers' leaders believe will lead to the introduction of selection at 14.

Mrs Bills cited Ms Kelly's calls for schools to talk more to parents as an example of her "patronising attitude" as schools were already involved in dialogues with parents. She added: "With Charles Clarke, you might not have agreed with him but he was somebody you could do business with. He knew the issues very well."

Mr Sinnott last night sought to distance himself from her remarks. He is due to meet Ms Kelly on 7 April to discuss the union's concerns over the workload agreement.

He said: "These are Hilary Bills's views. My informal contacts with Ruth have been very encouraging. The NUT assesses education secretaries over a longer period of time and not just after a few weeks."

Ms Kelly was given the job of education secretary ahead of David Miliband, then schools minister, who was seen as the favourite. Both were rising stars in the new Labour firmament, but since her appointment Ms Kelly's has been on the wane as she has juggled her role as a mother of four children with a job in the Cabinet. Her affiliation with the Catholic sect Opus Dei has also raised questions about the moral code she brings to the job.

Until yesterday, Ms Kelly appeared to be weathering her first tour of the teaching unions' Easter conferences reasonably well. She received polite applause from the traditionally moderate Association of Teachers and Lecturers' annual conference in Torquay although she was jeered and called "patronising" after telling the Secondary Heads Association earlier this month that they should talk more to parents.

But there is widespread disquiet over the way she has tackled major decisions since taking office in December, and criticism that Ms Kelly is a mouthpiece for Downing Street, who embraces all its educational ideas without a murmur of dissent. She is passionately in favour of the privately sponsored city academies being established in urban areas to replace struggling state secondary schools.

In her address to the ATL conference on Wednesday, Ms Kelly was robust in her defence of the academies programme ­ under fire from teachers who claim it will create a two-tier education system ­ saying they had been set up in areas "where nothing else had worked ... The children in these areas need something to happen and need something to happen quickly," she added.

Teachers will vote today on whether to take strike action over the use of classroom assistants "on the cheap" to take over their lessons.

The NUT, Britain's biggest teacher's union, is being urged to back a national one-day stoppage over the proposed scheme, saying it could lead to cash-strapped schools sacking qualified teachers and employing cheaper classroom assistants in their place.

A motion to the conference claims the scheme will "lower the cost of education at the expense of every child's right to be taught by a qualified teacher".

Mr Sinnott said: "The Secretary of State should take this very seriously indeed. If you ask what people are saying on the ground, every single primary school headteacher and their representatives are making the same point: they don't have enough money."

LABOUR'S WORST EDUCATION SECRETARY YET?

David Blunkett (Education Secretary 1997-2001) had good relations with the teachers' unions but he was responsible for introducing A-level reforms and the introduction of AS levels, which led to nearly 2,000 students having their results upgraded as a result of a marking fiasco in 2002.

Estelle Morris (2001-2002) was a former teacher and the Education Secretary with whom teachers' leaders got on best. She resigned after the Government failed to achieve its target of 80 per cent of 11-year-olds reaching the required standard in English and 75 per cent in maths.

Charles Clarke (2002-2004) was the Secretary of State who froze the NUT out of negotiations after they refused to sign a deal to reduce workload by allowing classroom assistants to take over lessons. But teachers' leaders felt he was strong enough to stand up to Downing Street.

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