Party chiefs accused of schools `cant'

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The Independent Online

The Prime Minister and Tony Blair were both accused of "hypocrisy and cant" by a teachers union leader yesterday. Both men had taken on education as a personal crusade as a general election approached. But both had failed to live up to their own principles, according to Pete Cole, President of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers.

In a speech to the union's annual conference in Glasgow, Mr Cole said both the Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard, and Labour's education spokesman, David Blunkett, had been sidelined by their party leaders.

"The heat is being turned up on the general election campaign. Both leaders appear to have personally taken over responsibility for education, giving Shephard and Blunkett relatively minor supporting roles. Hypocrisy and cant are very much to the fore in the politics of education," he said.

Mr Cole also accused Harriet Harman, Labour's health spokeswoman, of "staggering naivety" in her decision to send her son to a selective school, despite her party's opposition to selection.

Mr Blair, the Labour leader, sent his son to the grant- maintained Oratory school in west London. This had called into question the sincerity of the party's policies on education, which included opposition to opting-out, Mr Cole said.

"People who put themselves in prominent public positions do not, nor should they, have the luxury to say one thing and do something else. I am reminded of a poem by Spike Milligan: `People who live in glass houses should pull the blinds when removing their trousers'," he said.

The Prime Minister was equally guilty, Mr Cole said, when he spoke of equal opportunities for all pupils.

"This is sheer hypocrisy coming from the leader of a party which has introduced enormous inequality into the education system," he said.

Mr Cole blamed poverty, unemployment and social polarisation for violence in schools. These had been brought into focus by the stabbing of the London head teacher Philip Lawrence in December and the shooting in Dunblane, last month, he said.

A growing number of attacks on teachers by pupils and parents had contributed to a four-fold increase in the number of staff taking early retirement on health grounds. Ten years ago the figure was around 1,500 per year but it had now grown to 6,000.

Mr Cole called for a Royal Commission on education.Teachers and politicians sought to work together to plan an education system which could meet the changing needs of industry, he said.