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Better times ahead, hints Shephard

Frances Rafferty sees the Education Secretary's charm work wonders on the Secondary Heads Association conference. Education Secretary Gillian Shephard has given a strong hint to headteachers that next year's public spending round will be kinder to schools and that the method of funding will be revised.

In her speech at the annual conference of the Secondary Heads Association this week in Warwick, she said she had listened carefully to the arguments SHA and other teacher organisations had been putting to her about school finance.

Mrs Shephard said she had direct support from the Prime Minister "that education will be at the top of our priorities as the economy delivers further growth". She also said, in response to questions on funding from SHA members, that she is working with the local authority associations in the hope of moving towards "a more rational funding mechanism".

The Education Secretary also used the speech to announce a review of education for 16-to-19 year-olds by Sir Ron Dearing. She has asked Sir Ron to look at improving the range of qualifications for this age group, but made it clear that she had no intention of tampering with A-levels, which she described as the "24 carat gold standard". But she did say that pupils may be expected to study core skills alongside A-levels, for example information technology, as do students of General National Vocational Qualifications.

Although almost every head in the association has his or her horror tale of impending redundancies and savage school budget cuts, Mrs Shephard had the conference eating out of her hand. Starting her speech with a few jokes, and then going straight into the funding issue, she won her audience around with a mixture of face-to-face charm and the reputation that preceded her.

It did not need incoming SHA president John Dunford to invoke the ghost of John Patten, Mrs Shephard's hapless predecessor, for the headteachers to recognise how far relations have come with the Department for Education since last year's conference; notwithstanding that Mr Patten's successor is selling almost exactly the same policies as before.

However, Mrs Shephard has replaced arrogance with a willingness to listen, and can use her background (and ex-headteacher husband) to her advantage without sounding patronising.

Her admission that the current funding system results in winners and losers must have been music to Peter Downes, the union's president and head of Hinchingbrooke school in Huntingdon. In his conference address he said that his many visits to Britain's schools had revealed vast disparities in fortunes.

Mr Downes said: "This year I have had the chance of visiting schools in the Carling Premier League and in the lower divisions of the Beazer Homes League and it does make you realise that the national lottery of life, where you are born and to whom, still makes an enormous difference to the chances you have of a good education and a reasonable range of life's opportunities."

Mr Downes has been one of the pioneers of local management and a tireless pursuer of the school funding Holy Grail. Even the School Teachers' Review Body appears to have given up trying to cut through the funding fog.

Mr Downes was candid in his view that the Government has sought obfuscation. He told the conference: "On more than one occasion this year we have heard DFE officials admit that politicians prefer a system which is confused, so as to blur the lines of accountability."

In front of a sea of secondary school heads, Mr Downes made a plea for putting extra resources into primary and pre-school education. He told the conference: "The more we study pupil achievement, the more tests we develop, the clearer it becomes that what happens to people in the earliest years of their lives is crucial to their long-term success."

If SHA members gave Mrs Shephard a warm welcome, they also proved not to be partisan with applause when David Blunkett, Labour's shadow education secretary, came to the platform the previous day.

Mr Blunkett gave a speech emphasising the importance of teaching the 3Rs, at all levels, and maintaining discipline that could easily have fallen from the whiskered jowls of former Tory education minister and traditionalist Sir Rhodes Boyson. But he distanced himself from a Sunday paper report which had him calling for the return of prefect power. Roasting young fags on open fires was not what he had in mind, he told the conference.

He encouraged the heads by promising a decade of investment in education if Labour won the next election, and talked of three-year rolling budgets. But he was very careful about making specific promises.

He told the assembled heads: "Retrospective catch-up is an impossible task. We must look at how we can recommit ourselves to a 10-year programme of planned improvement to introduce some stability and security in schools. I need to argue for that," he said, leading John Sutton, SHA's general secretary, to joke later that Mrs Shephard appeared more generous.

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