The President of Britain's second-biggest teachers' union launched a scathing attack on Tony Blair and his government yesterday, accusing ministers of attempting to dismantle comprehensive education.
Martin Johnson, of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, called Mr Blair a "bourgeois prime minister" and lambasted him for choosing not to send his children to their local school.
He claimed the Government was creating a system where schools were "graded" by social class and wealth and accused ministers of producing "a quite artificial hierarchy" in education by offering extra funding to specialist schools.
Mr Johnson, who has taught in inner-city schools for more than 20 years, told delegates to the union's annual conference in Llandudno: "This might be the policy of a Tory prime minister; it is certainly the policy of a bourgeois prime minister, a prime minister with absolutely no understanding of how ordinary schools work, a prime minister who unlike his secretary of state does not even realise that his own children's potential would have been fulfilled quite adequately in his local secondary schools."
He accused ministers of building up schools in some areas while criticising those left to deal with difficult neighbourhoods. Mr Johnson, the author of an important study of inner-city failing schools, attacked specialist schools, which benefit from special funding and can also select up to 10 per cent of their pupils by aptitude.
David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, famously pledged to remove selection before the last election. But ministers have expanded to 446 the number of technology, sport, arts and language schools, and have promised to increase the number of specialist schools to 800 - about one-quarter of secondaries - by 2003. Specialist schools receive a £120-per-pupil bonus and a special £100,000 buildings and equipment grant in return for raising £50,000 from the private sector. Ministers have hailed their success, pointing to a 2.5 point improvement in the proportion of children gaining five good GCSEs last year, compared with a 1.5 point rise across England and Wales.
But Mr Johnson said: "The NASUWT opposes the expansion of a structure of differentiated secondary schools as inequitable and damaging to teachers and pupils alike." He broadened his attack, criticising the effects of the system of parental choice, which allows affluent parents to move into the catchment areas of successful schools.
He said: "We are back to selection, a more subtle form of selection, a selection which brings in the marvels and mysteries of the middle-class housing market, a selection which may be by the parents and certainly is nothing to do with establishing an intake which reflects the whole community served by the school.
"The Government causes a quite unequal distribution of available potential, then lauds the schools which received great potential and converted it, and assaults with complete brutality the schools which received little potential and converted that." He said: "We, the NASUWT, oppose selection quite simply because it is damaging to the conditions of work of our members."
The Department for Education and Employment said the claims were "nonsense", insisting that only one in 20 specialist schools exercised its right to select pupils.