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Blair places schools in foreground of his vision

The Opposition leader re-asserted his passion for education at this week's Labour conference. Education's coming home was the message Tony Blair gave to delegates and the nation in his keynote speech at the Labour party conference in Blackpool this week.

"Ask me my three main priorities for Government, and I tell you: education, education, education," he said and the hall roared approval. He won even more enthusiastic applause when he said: "No return to the 11-plus. The comprehensive system will stay, modernised for today's world, taking account of children's different abilities but not setting them apart."

Although some mused later that setting apart was exactly what he wanted, delegates were not about to start heckling or shout "Let's talk money Tony".

Conference was showing its loyalty to the leader in the belief that this would be his swansong as leader of the Opposition. A video, complete with pop music, was shown before Mr Blair came on to the stage. And when he eventually arrived he won a pop star's reception. He continued in a populist vein by appropriating the football theme for this summer's European cup saying: "Labour's coming home."

The party's hopes and dreams for education played a major part in the speech. While reiterating previous commitments, for example making sure every five, six and seven-year-old is in a class of 30 or under, he had a couple of new rabbits to pull out of his hat.

He announced the creation of three-week intensive literacy summer schools with the aim of ensuring that every 11-year-old is up to standard in reading. It is likely that parents will be expected to sign home-school contracts agreeing to attend the summer schools for remedial teaching if necessary.

Later in the bars, members of the educational fraternity expressed scepticism. "It does smack of a gimmick," said one. "Isn't it a bit late by the age of 11? And how will they ensure the children who really need to go attend?" Graham Lane, general secretary of the Socialist Education Association and education chair for the London borough of Newham was more positive. He said that his borough had already planned to set up weekend schools at four schools.

The Pounds 250,000 scheme, due to start in January will allow children studying for GCSE to help boost their grades and others catch up on numeracy and literacy.

The borough also intends to open a technology summer school. Teachers will be paid Pounds 15 an hour. He said: "We will have to try to sell the idea to pupils and parents."

Mr Blair's other rabbit was an addition to his high-tech vision for Britain's schools. He said his agreement with British Telecom to wire schools, colleges and universities to the so-called superhighway was complete and now he had won a commitment from BT and the cable industry to keep costs low. "So we've got the wires. We've got the low-cost connections. Now you need the hardware, the computers themselves," he said.

The answer, he hopes, will arrive later this year when a report by businessman Dennis Stevenson will look at how to increase access to computers and train teachers to use them.

But once the visionary stuff was over it was David Blunkett, shadow education secretary, who was left to answer questions about the nitty-gritty at the numerous fringe meetings. "If classes get up to 30, but parents still want their children to attend the school, how will this affect the appeals procedure?" was a typical enquiry.

Mr Blunkett smiled and admitted it was a problem: "All I can say is that we must take drastic measures before a school sinks before our eyes and see how we can help schools to expand."

Labour's plans for the Office of Standards in Education were eagerly sought. It was Estelle Morris MP, a member of the education team, who assured a new model which included support as well as inspection was planned. But Mr Blunkett also made it clear a Labour government would be tough on failing schools and, of course, tough on the causes of failing schools.

Target-setting, testing and assessing and league tables, albeit value-added, are all still on.

Teachers' leaders all expressed pleasure at Mr Blair's emphasis on education, but Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, did wonder how far vision on a shoestring would get the nation's schools.

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