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Cameron gives four minutes to schools

Education took a back seat as the Tories in Blackpool only had ears for their leaders-in-waiting. William Stewart reports.

The rows of empty chairs at the fringe meeting organised by the country's two headteacher associations said it all.

The same event packed out rooms at the Lib Dem and Labour conferences. But at the Conservatives in Blackpool this week fewer than 20 turned up, and two-thirds of those were from teaching unions.

For anyone pondering the reason for this lack of interest in education policy, the voice of leadership contender David Davies booming out from a crowded meeting next door spelt it out.

The Tories only had one thing on their minds, and it was not how schools can connect with their communities.

Undaunted by his meagre audience, Mark Hoban, shadow education minister, ploughed on, warning that heads needed to respond to more consumer-orientated, choice-led communities.

"I think schools need to spend more time telling people what they do," he said.

It all sounded remarkably similar to Labour's new push for parents to be given more information by schools.

But there was no doubt which party was speaking when it came to the conference education debate, as delegates aired more traditional Tory concerns.

Mary Douglas, Wiltshire council's portfolio holder for children's services, kicked things off with a plaintive call to save marriage.

"Whatever reforms we plan for the education system are almost pointless unless we first address family breakdown," she said.

A Sloaney-looking Charlotte Leslie, from Kensington and Chelsea, railed against the Government's crushing of competitive spirit. Kids needed to be taught how to lose if they were going to become winners, she said to enthusiastic applause.

There was a call for the return of grammar schools and a plea from David Senior of Sutton and Cheam to restore moral values in "the jungles that we call secondary schools" where teachers were assaulted and raped.

With the audience suitably warmed up, it was time for the main event and the appearance of the Conservatives' latest boy wonder.

Shadow education secretary he may be, but David Cameron was never likely to devote much of what was effectively a job interview for the top job to the finer points of his policy brief. So it proved. Less than a quarter of his 20-minute speech was spent on education and most of that was rabble-rousing rhetoric.

"We could be a government that could sweep away political correctness, end the all-must-have-prizes mentality and scrap the progressive education claptrap that has done so much damage to so many children for so many years," he said.

Policy was restricted to calls for synthetic phonics, setting and streaming and a tug at the heart strings with his campaign to save special schools, inspired by his own experience with his disabled son. In the education discussion that followed his three-minute standing ovation and presidential-style wife-kissing session, Mr Cameron admitted the Conservatives had a huge amount of work to do to show how they could improve state education for all.

Future schools policy debate is expected to centre on whether to introduce a voucher system weighted towards the disadvantaged. But that was far from the minds of this conference. By now the hall was no more than a quarter full and at least one delegate had fallen asleep.


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