Major taking tough stance on education

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BACKBENCH Tories have concluded that education is the issue on which John Major is promising to be more Thatcherite than his prime ministerial predecessor.

Their view is based on a speech which the Prime Minister delivered privately last week to the backbench 1922 committee of Conservative MPs, in which he proclaimed that opposition from the teacher unions to his planned reforms effectively confirmed their value.

'We know we've got it right when the teachers' unions attack our reforms,' the Prime Minister said. That remark plainly referred to a recent, sharp exchange of letters between John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, and Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. He had written protesting against this year's national curriculum tests for seven-year-olds. Mr Patten seized on the opportunity, and wrote a public reply condemning the NUT for criticising reforms which were essential for raising standards.

That militant government response to teacher protests was strongly underlined by Mr Major, who is taking a lead role in developing education policy, through his Downing Street policy unit. When the teacher unions attack government changes, Mr Major said, 'John Patten can know that the policy is absolutely bang on'. Teacher resistance, in other words, will be Mr Major's litmus test of whether the policies are right.

The Prime Minister also elaborated on his plan to take over failing inner city schools - a proposal which will be detailed in the education White Paper due at the end of this month. He said that young people's natural curiousity was being 'blighted' by some teachers. The White Paper proposals would tackle 'the worst schools, the sink schools, inner city schools which have a record of failing their pupils'. That failure represented a 'terrible waste'.

That was something the Government had to stop, 'whatever the difficulty of dealing with it', Mr Major added: 'We will stop that. If the local education authority can't do its job properly, we will find another way. It may mean a row; it will mean a row. But to get those inner city schools right, it's worth having a row. This White Paper will prove that we put people first.'

The tone suggests that Mr Major actively wants the White Paper proposals to prove controversial. It also confirms a government acceptance of the fact that Baroness Thatcher's remarks on winning the 1987 general election - her promise that opting out would rescue inner city schools from decline - has yet to be fulfilled. Mr Major is seeking to keep Lady Thatcher's promise by adopting a confrontational approach towards those staffroom opponents and local education authorities which he regards as irredeemable.

Wandsworth council, the flagship Conservative authority, overspent by pounds 6m on last year's education budget, it was revealed yesterday.

The council's finance director, Simon Heywood, has accused the education deparment of 'a serious lack of budgetary control' in last year's pounds 129m budget. He warned the council that it would need 'urgent action' to avoid a further deficit on this year's reduced budget of pounds 110m.