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Best wishes to our friend in the North

The North of England conference has always been a special education event. Alison Brace looks back over its history as it prepares to celebrate its 100th birthday in Warrington next week.

LITTLE could a Salford bootmaker have predicted how his vision for an annual science conference in the North of England would become one of the most influential gatherings of the education calendar.

Back in 1902, JH Reynolds, Manchester City Council's director of technical instruction, noted the success of London's annual conference for science teachers and decided the North should have one, too.

An executive committee was set up and the first North of England Education Conference was arranged for January 2 and 3, 1903. Speakers were to hold forth for no longer than 20 minutes each - and 3,200 teachers, lecturers, inspectors and local government employees flocked to the Municipal School of Technology in Manchester to hear them.

By 1904, the agenda had been broadened to look at all areas of the curriculum, not just science.

A century later, the North of England conference, being held in Warrington next week, is going strong.

The speeches may be longer and more contentious and the audience drawn from all parts of the United Kingdom, but its aim remains broadly the same as in Mr Reynolds's day.

Away from the heckling of the Easter teacher-union conferences - away from everything, some would argue - the conference retains a more philosophical take on teaching and learning.

Since 1924, education secretaries or their ministers have regularly roused themselves from their post-Christmas torpor to attend the conference. Kenneth Clarke, the former Tory education secretary, remarked when he took office that he was told it was the one conference he must not miss.

Conference presidents have ranged from university vice-chancellors to politicians such as former prime minister Harold Wilson and former home secretary Merlyn Rees.

In recent years, celebrities such as Melvyn Bragg and newsreader Martyn Lewis have spiced up proceedings by opening the event.

The great and the good have passed through the North of England conference: mountaineer Sir John Hunt spoke in 1953, Lady Plowden in 1968 and 1972; and Margaret Thatcher in 1973.

Neil Fletcher, the Local Government Association's director of education and lifelong learning, said: "Secretaries of state often use conference for a 'wake-up call' because it is the first conference of the year.

"It allows them to say, 'This is the year when I will legislate for this'

or 'This is my New Year's resolution'. It is a conference made for the spin doctor."

Anthony Crosland used it in 1966 to put forward his case for comprehensive schools.

Twenty-one years later, Kenneth Baker, the then Tory education secretary, announced plans for a national curriculum. In 1991, Kenneth Clarke, told the conference he wanted more primary and secondary schools to go grant-maintained.

And days after 2000 dawned, David Blunkett, then Labour education secretary, announced plans to test 12 and 13-year-olds in English, maths and science.

Andy Barson, school adviser with the East Riding of Yorkshire, and organiser of the 2001 conference in Bridlington, said: "There is no doubt it is regarded as the premier education conference in the country. It is not overtly political and it really is about where we are heading."

A cursory glance at the agendas since that first meeting in Manchester suggests that education has been round and round the same track for the past 100 years.

If exams and league tables have preoccupied delegates for the past decade, it was no less so in 1906 when "use and abuse of public examinations" was the topic chosen by the headmistress of Manchester High School.

Today, the talk may be of how to use broadband and whiteboards, but in Blackpool in 1924, conference delegates learned of the possibilities of "Teaching by Wireless" from the BBC's director of programmes.

The language of debate has changed too. Examples of outmoded terminology include: "The Physique of the Modern School Boy" (1914), "The Dull and Backward Child" (1923), and the "Teaching of Mothercraft" (1926) to name just a few.

Themes recur many times but, according to Professor Peter Gosden, a former chairman of Leeds University's school of education, the point of the conference has been to air vital and controversial pedagogic issues which will never be settled, but have shaped educational provision over the past century. No other conference does this.

"Unlike the South-east, the north of England is not dominated by any single town or city but is made up of numerous vigorous, lively, proud and distinctive communities," Professor Gosden writes in his book, The North of England education conference, 1902-1992.

These days, the make-up of the audience has changed considerably. Of the 3,200 who attended in 1903, more than 2,300 were school or college teachers.

Today, only about one in 10 is a teacher, the rest being mainly councillors, council staff or trade union representatives. Last summer, a plan to launch a South of England education conference was floated by the LGA but never got off the ground.

The days may be gone since admission to the North of England conference cost just a shilling and delegates were offered cheap return rail fares.

It is, however, still breaking new ground as it enters its second century: next year the conference is set to take place in Belfast, venturing across to Northern Ireland for the first time.


1946: DR Hardman, parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Education, tells conference of the Government's plans to concentrate depleted post-war resources on raising the school-leaving age from 14 to 15. He outlines plans for secondary schools for all "without labels" but assures delegates that there is no question of pulling down grammar schools.

1966: Anthony Crosland puts forward his case for comprehensive schools on "political and social grounds".

1977: Shirley Williams announces plans to cut pound;27 million off school milk and meal costs and savings of a further pound;11m from other areas of the education budget.

1981: Mark Carlisle announces cuts of pound;40m from the higher education budget and up to pound;70m from the schools budget.

1987: Kenneth Baker announces his plan for a national curriculum.

1991: Kenneth Clarke says he wants to see more primary and secondary schools going grant-maintained, with LEAs becoming more "enablers" than "providers".

1992: Kenneth Clarke announces that teacher training will be centred in schools, not universities.

1998: David Blunkett unveils a policy to create education action zones.

1999: David Blunkett announces plans for private companies to take over the running of LEAs.

2000: David Blunkett reveals his intention to test 12 and 13-year-olds in English, maths and science.

2001: Estelle Morris announces pound;32m to tackle teacher shortages.

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