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Designer's needle pricks delegates' utopian ideal

Iggy Pop's punk anthem Lust for Life blared out as headteachers took the stage to receive their awards. The 12th annual Specialist Schools Conference was not lacking in confidence.

Several halls in Birmingham's vast International Convention Centre were once again occupied by 2,000 delegates from the growing ranks of specialist schools and a parade of speakers from academia, politics and business.

Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the trust, and Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, both encouraged specialist schools to take up the option of a second specialism.

Professor Michael Barber, head of the Prime Minister's delivery unit, spoke about the Government's achievements in education, health, crime and transport in a speech entitled: "How far the promised land?"

Having forced conference organisers into some last minute rescheduling after a heavily-delayed train journey, he was forced to admit that transport still had some way to go.

The utopian theme was continued by Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC, who outlined the plans for a futuristic Digital Curriculum, due to be launched in 2006. A pound;150 million multimedia resource, it is intended to harness the appeal of the BBC's entertainment expertise for learning.

"Children can totally immerse themselves in computer games. We want to make their objective learning, rather than just finishing Grand Theft Auto," he said.

Wayne Hemingway, the designer and founder of fashion label Red or Dead, struck one of the few negative notes when he attacked the teaching of design and technology as ignorant and unimaginative in one of the conference's many seminars.

He said work by his son, Jack, was failed at Chichester high school for boys even though it later won him a place at art college. Several teachers in the audience sympathised, with many blaming the demands of an inflexible, out-of-date curriculum.

One disagreed vehemently: acting headteacher of the school, John Child, who was in the audience.

He told The TES that design and technology was very well taught, with 64 per cent of students achieving A or B grades at A-level.

In a speech which excited much discussion among delegates, Professor David Hargreaves, associate director of the trust, said headteachers would be the ones to define the Government's policy of personalisation through their practice in schools.

He proposed nine "gateways" to help tailor learning more to the needs of individual pupils, including an enhanced voice for students, new technology and a better use of formative assessment.

"I believe this will lead to a genuine transformation of England's secondary education system," he said.

But Professor Andy Hargreaves, from Boston college in the US, had a warning for headteachers in a speech outlining how innovation in schools should be sustained. In 10 years' time, he said, teachers would no longer be scarce, and power would shift back to Government. "We have got 10 years to get it right," he said.

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