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Gateshead and Hackney give the minister plenty to shout about

David Miliband launches Excellence in Cities week with a strong defence of the pound;500m scheme. Biddy Passmore reports

David Miliband bounces like a tall, besuited Tigger onto the stage of the subterranean theatre at the National Portrait Gallery. The school standards minister has come to present awards to 15 Excellence in Cities "champions", a group of pupils, teachers and mentors who are being recognised for their outstanding achievement in the scheme over the past year.

Quite untroubled by jetlag after a whistle-stop tour of Australian schools last week, Miliband oozes energy and optimism . "It's all good, very good," he says. His predecessors launched the scheme to raise achievement in the cities in the belief it would work. "Now, today, I can say it works."

He cites figures showing that the average rate of improvement in GCSE results in areas covered by the scheme is twice that in areas outside. (The proportion of pupils getting five or more good GCSEs is up 2.6 points on last year, compared with 1.3 in other areas).

This success is "a real lead indicator to keep the scheme going consistently and coherently", he says. "We're sticking with it - and the best thing is that up and down the country young people are sticking with it too." So he looks wounded when asked if he is frustrated with the sometimes slow and uneven progress noted by Ofsted inspectors in their reports on the scheme.

He describes as "striking" the great improvement in GCSE results achieved in some areas, such as Gateshead (up 7.3 percentage points last year ) and Hackney (up 5.7 points). He can't change the fact that some areas have not been involved in the scheme for very long, he points out. But the longer schools have been involved, the better their results.

Excellence in Cities, which now costs pound;500m a year, is still expanding. Started in 1999, today it involves 57 authorities in the main programme as well as 44 excellence "clusters", covering smaller pockets of deprivation outside inner cities. By May 2005, another 40 clusters will have been added.

Ministers have no plans for further expansion, says Miliband, nor for any great changes in the way the scheme is run. But nothing is set in stone. He is always keen to find ways of making it more flexible and less bureaucratic.

What about the criticism from the Secondary Heads Association that help needs to be more precisely targeted - on any school with a high proportion of deprived pupils rather than on deprived areas?

"There is always a balance to be struck between simplicity and targeting," says Miliband. "The danger is that you spend so much time figuring out which schools are entitled to support that you waste money that could be spent on helping pupils. "I think we've got the balance more or less right but I'm open to suggestions," he adds.

Does he think - as the inspectors seem to - that learning mentors are the scheme's most effective way of raising achievement among deprived pupils? "All the strands are popular but to different degrees in different parts of the country," says the minister tactfully. "I'm very pro learning mentors, but they're not the only club in the bag."

He has high praise for the gifted and talented initiative, and points out that 100,000 young people were involved in that programme last year.

"That's fantastic, a very significant change," he enthuses. "That's 100,000 people being told they've got a gift which previously they would have been unable to realise."

He seems especially pleased that 40 youngsters in his own constituency of South Shields have been given the chance to learn Latin. He has previously pointed out that only 17 per cent of 18 year olds in the area go to university - evidence that Britain is still "scarred by divisions of class".

Unlike many politicians, Miliband was himself educated in an inner city comprehensive, Haverstock school, in Camden, London, which left him with a "strong sense of the power of education, the values of equal opportunity and the potential of inclusive schooling."

How far can Excellence in Cities help to stem the middle-class flight from state education in the inner cities? It can help, he suggests, but it is not a panacea. "What drives people out of the state system is that there aren't good schools," he says. "So to the extent that EiC is one component of the strategy to raise standards, it will help."

Unlike almost every other area of government activity, Excellence in Cities is not working to precise targets - on improvements in results, or attendance. But perhaps it is doing all the better for that. "Hackney and Gateshead have outstripped any target anyone could have set for them," Miliband points out.

"I'm pleased that kids are getting chances in life they wouldn't otherwise have," he says. "The most important thing is young people are showing they are worth the investment. Too often, they've been told they're not worth it because they're just 'kids'."

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