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Monday, 28 January, 2002, 13:12 GMT
Tories revise schools policy
Building bridges in Berlin: Damian Green, the NUT's Arthur Jarman and education official, Sabine Pfeffer
By BBC News Online's Sean Coughlan

It is not what you expect from a Conservative shadow education secretary.

On a fact-finding visit to Germany, Damian Green, is told that education ministers meet each month with teachers' union leaders.

How would that go down with a Conservative education secretary?

Such meetings would not be a problem, he says, raising the prospect of a relationship considerably closer than enjoyed by Labour and the teachers' unions.

Although this was qualified by saying that there would need to be fewer teachers' unions (which is on the cards), this was a long way from the hostility and suspicion which once characterised relations between the Tories and teachers' unions.

Damian Green
Damian Green is seeking common ground with the teachers' unions

At last year's National Union of Teachers conference, Mr Green's predecessor, Theresa May, accused teachers of representing the "last bastion of unreconstructed trade unionism".

Now it seems they are to be invited round for tea, biscuits and mutual understanding.

And accompanying Mr Green on this visit to find how the German education system worked was Arthur Jarman, assistant secretary of the National Union of Teachers.

Unless we're seen to care about public services, people will be wary of us

Damian Green, Shadow Education Secretary

As olive branches go, this was most of the grove being offered, as the Conservatives seek to re-brand their education policy.

After a general election campaign in which the Conservatives failed to land a punch on the government over education, the incoming shadow secretary is going back to the drawing board.

And recognising the scale of the task ahead of him, he says that the first stage of recovery has been "to earn the right for the Conservatives to be heard on education".

In retrospect, his party's decision to downplay education at the election had been proved a tactical mistake, he says.

'Seismic change'

Now he wants to re-engage with the education debate and says that this means heading into the political mainstream - rowing to the left, as quickly as Labour rowed to the right when it was seeking to return to power.

As the flag bearer for One Nation Conservatism, his language is of moderation and tolerance, and says that his longstanding emphasis on public services has now become party policy.

Iain Duncan Smith's shift of priority from tax cuts to protecting public services was a "seismic change" and that "people had not yet realised its significance".

"We have to fight on the centre-ground - and Iain Duncan Smith shares this analysis. Those who said that education was a Labour issue were proved dead wrong."

"Unless we're seen to care about public services, people will be wary of us," he says.

'Journey to the mainstream'

So far Mr Green has not publicly ditched the policies of "free schools" and "school vouchers" which seemed more likely to appeal to free-market fundamentalists than parents.

But his assertion that "everything is in the mix" and his talk of "a journey back to the mainstream" shows little enthusiasm for such a right-wing agenda.

When policies are unveiled, he says that they will be "pragmatic and practical", based on ideas that seem to work rather than on ideology.

"We often see good schools as a problem, just because some pupils can't get into them. The problems we should be addressing are in the bad schools."

'Royal College of Teaching'

Although not yet adding detail to policy, among the subject headings that are under consideration are greater autonomy for heads, improving vocational education, a review of teacher training and the proposal that there should be a Royal College of Teaching.

This would follow the role of medical royal colleges in promoting good practice and supporting research.

He says it would be "futile" for him to promise increased pay for teachers, but he says that there should be reforms to the performance pay system and says the career structure is unnecessarily complex.

Mr Green is also frank about the failures of his party in connecting with teachers.

Image change

"In the past, teachers felt that Conservatives didn't have their interests at heart. But it was often a question of tone rather than content."

He plans to change that image, and with an affable and interested manner, he will be leading efforts to make the Conservatives a more palatable proposition in the staffroom.

Arthur Jarman said it was "highly desirable" that the union should have good relations with a party which he said seemed to be "genuinely beginning with a clean slate".

As part of this re-invention, Mr Green is looking for ideas in Europe, and had travelled to Germany to see how vocational education might be more effectively integrated into the schools system.

Cynics among the teaching profession might be surprised that this was not a glad-handing, promotional trip, but was an assiduous and unglamorous trawl of the German education system.

Teachers, students, education administrators, head teachers and trade union leaders were visited in Bavaria and Brandenburg and questioned in a pursuit of fresh ways of tackling common problems.

In particular Mr Green saw opportunities in the German vocational system for motivating teenagers who were losing interest in academic studies.

And in general, he says that the German system seemed "less hung up about ideology, which has bedevilled our education system for the past 40 years".

But Mr Jarman said that although the vocational training was impressive in quality, there was little to suggest that the UK should import such a selective system.

See also:

14 Apr 01 | Education
Tories attack teacher unions
09 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Tory turns teacher for a day
22 Nov 01 | UK Politics
Tories put services over tax cuts
28 Jan 02 | Education
Vocational schools under scrutiny
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