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Wednesday, 9 May, 2001, 11:33 GMT
'Panto' politics appals head
Blair on school visit
Pupils were not "pawns" in Blair visit, says head
Party politics and schools do not mix well, says the head teacher propelled into the political limelight on the first day of the general election campaign.

Irene Bishop says she is deeply unimpressed by the "pantomime" that has followed the announcement of the general election by the prime minister on a visit to her south London secondary school.


Schools should be apolitical. Of course they depend on politicians for funding, but they shouldn't be seen to be in favour of any particular party.

Irene Bishop, head teacher
While the school, St Saviour's and St Olave's enjoyed "an historic occasion", she said that she has been less pleased by the subsequent attempts to use her as a political pundit.

"Schools should be apolitical. Of course they depend on politicians for funding, but they shouldn't be seen to be in favour of any particular party."

With education likely to feature as a campaign battleground, she advised other head teachers "to be very careful not to be seen to support one side or the other".

Irritated

"I've been irritated by being called a "Blairite" in the press," says Ms Bishop, who wants to maintain her position of neutrality.

She was even more concerned by the way members of the "media circus" made themselves feel at home in her school.

"Maybe I was naive, but I no idea of what to expect. They were elbowing people out of the way, smoking in a non-smoking school, pushing and shoving, taking chairs meant for the children."

And she said she and her pupils had taken exception to press reports which had described a member of staff at the school as a "fat man with tattoos".

Pawns

And she rejected suggestions that her pupils had been used as "pawns" in the opening gambits of the Labour Party's election campaign.

"We were delighted to have Tony Blair here, because he's the prime minister and to give our pupils a chance to see the prime minister in the flesh.

"If it had been a prime minister of another party, they would have also been welcome," she said.

Pupils were not told in advance who the "special visitor" would be - and the school itself did not have confirmation that the planned visit of a "high-ranking government minister" would include the prime minister until Friday.

The head teacher said that it had soon become apparent that the visit would be used to launch the general election - and that the school had been willing to be used "for a speech to the nation".

After her brush with the political machine, she says that she hopes that the general election will allow schools to be discussed in a way that reflects the complex reality, rather than simplistic party positions.

Teacher shortages

If she had all the politicians together and could force them to address a single education issue, she said that it would be the recruitment and retention of teachers.

Although her school so far has avoided problems with shortages of teachers, she says that the next government must make a priority of "valuing teachers" in a way which would increase numbers entering the profession.

Increasing the supply of new teachers is vital, she says.

And in the hours before Mr Blair's visit, when the prime minister was presumably preparing himself for a vital speech - Irene Bishop was interviewing for her own pressing need, an English teacher. And, she says, she found one.

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