Kelly kicks off school year

New Education Secretary makes her debut at the North of England education conference. Michael Shaw reports

A new year ... and a new Education Secretary.

As the North of England conference, as ever, kicked off the education calendar, all eyes were on the youthful Ruth Kelly, who made her first major speech in her new job.

More than 700 teachers and education officials gathered in Manchester to hear her and Jane Davidson and Barry Gardiner, her counterparts in Wales and Northern Ireland, spread the word in what is almost certainly an election year.

So that is probably why her speech was pitched at a wider audience than the practitioners at the conference. She was expected to say that she wanted to create an education system where every child's unique individual needs were met (an indication that the Government's fascination with "personalised learning" has not ended with Charles Clarke and David Miliband's departures from the Department for Education and Skills).

She was due to stress that she wanted to expand the choice between schools for parents and the choice of activities for pupils within schools.

She was also expected to defend the Government's plans to create 200 academies, which have been attacked by teachers' unions. A poll of 364 teachers published by the Sutton Trust this week found that 37 per cent were opposed to the new schools while 36 per cent supported them.

The Education Secretary was also invited to take part in a question-and-answer session today with Ms Davidson, Mr Gardiner and the education spokesmen for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. However, conference organisers said they felt it was likely that another education minister, such as Stephen Twigg, would fill in her place.

Other speakers at the conference included Ralph Tabberer, chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency.

Mr Tabberer told the conference that teachers should not be eligible for performance-pay increases unless they could show that they had a solid record of sustained training.

Writing in today's TES, Mr Tabberer criticised training days for teachers saying that, at worst, they were "little better than time off".

The chief executive said Inset days were often unfocused, that teachers'

coaching and mentoring skill were undeveloped, and that too much training was "short termist".

Also speaking was Benjamin Zander, the internationally renowned conductor, who was flying from his home in Boston, spending a day at the conference, then flying straight back.

The British-born conductor said he had been keen to make the brief trip because he wanted to warn teachers that their perceptions could be too negative, which led them into a "survival mode" in their classrooms.

Mr Zander said he hoped his speech would offer them "a new model for possibility, a different way of understanding what it is to be a human being".

The conference, which had the theme of "Leading Together", was being hosted by Manchester university's centre of educational leadership.

Brendan Murten, director of the centre and conference chairman, said the event was returning to its roots because it was first held in 1902 at Manchester's Municipal School of Technology.

Dame Jean Else, who was suspended last term as headteacher of Whalley Range high school by Manchester council after an investigation by the Audit Commission, cancelled a seminar she was scheduled to give on "Leadership Challenges and Challenging Leadership".

In one seminar delegates were treated to a play by professional actors explaining the life-saving potential of the recent Children Act.

The play, On the Case, was commissioned by Rochdale council and depicts the dramatic consequences when schools, social workers and hospitals fail to communicate with each other about a self-harming child.

* One of the first problems to hit Ms Kelly's in-tray has been pressure from the Tories on the Department for Education and Skills this week to explain its part in processing an adoption application for David Miliband, the former schools standards minister. Mr Miliband adopted a baby boy from the United States at Christmas.

Theresa May, the Conservative's family spokesman, has written to Ms Kelly, asking her to reveal the "timescale and dates" relating to the application following claims it may have been fast-tracked by civil servants.

A DfES spokesman said they would respond "in due course".

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Michael Shaw

I'm the director of TES Pro and former deputy editor of the TES magazine. I joined the publication as a news reporter back in 2002, and have worked in a variety of journalistic roles including editing its comment and news pages. In 2013 I set up the app version of the magazine, TES Reader, and the free TES Jobs app Michael Shaw