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Balls and Brown bank on schools

A new independent watchdog in the style of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street is part of ministers' drive to silence critics of education standards

Education finally got the proper Gordon Brown treatment this week as his protege scrapped the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in favour of an independent exam regulator.

The move, announced by Ed Balls in his first conference speech as Children, Schools and Families Secretary, was an obvious one for the political pairing that created an independent Bank of England when Labour took power in 1997.

It had the added benefit of trampling all over the efforts of the Liberal Democrats, who advocated exactly the same policy last week to carve out their own niche in education. And it maintained the Government's image of ceaseless activity in the schools system.

Mr Balls spent nearly a quarter of his 13-minute speech attacking the Tories. His claim that they wanted more grammar schools and more "grammar streaming" helped win a standing ovation.

But at a fringe meeting less than an hour later he admitted the Government had no plans to abolish remaining pockets of the "iniquitous" 11-plus.

The Prime Minister once again stated that "education is my passion". But, beyond Mr Balls's big idea for the exams system, there was precious little that was new.

Instead ministers believe their existing schools policy, combined with a wider child- and parent-centred approach, can deliver "world class education for all".

The emphasis on the three Rs will continue with a new "Every Child a Writer" scheme offering individual tutoring in primaries, alongside a pound;144 million extension of the existing Every Child Matters reading and numeracy packages.

Mr Brown renewed his commitment to personalisation with a promise to provide every secondary pupil with a tutor. He said: "Today in education, private schools offer one-to-one tuition. But why shouldn't all pupils and not just some benefit from extra personal help?" He echoed previous pledges to match the level of investment enjoyed in the independent sector.

Teachers' leaders welcomed the aspirations of the speech, but warned that "crude" national targets and lack of funding could prevent the rhetoric becoming reality.

Mr Balls also announced an independent pay and conditions negotiating body for 500,000-plus teaching assistants and other school support staff. It will create a new national pay framework, distinct from teachers and other local government workers, and was welcomed by Christina McAnea, head of education at Unison, the biggest support staff union. "For too long schools have relied on and exploited low-paid workers," she said. "You can't build a first-class education system on that."

But her members who are school support staff will still be balloted in November on strike action in protest at the pay offer 2.5 per cent below inflation that the Government has made to all local government workers.

Away from the conference hall, Chris Keates, the NASUWT general secretary, used a fringe meeting to launch a characteristically robust attack on organisations such as the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust and National College for School Leadership. They duplicate each other's work, cost too much and create a culture of dependency in schools, she said.

Along with John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, she criticised the impact of Ofsted and the expansion of academies.

Mr Balls said he wanted to exceed the target of 400 academies, but attempted to dampen the flames of controversy by saying they would be encouraged to collaborate more with other schools.

"I'm trying to make academies part of our mainstream system, but not in a way that blunts their purpose," he said.

Mr Balls called on the country to join the Government's campaign against bullying of children and teachers. But ministers came under pressure to make it compulsory for schools to keep records of all bullying incidents.

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