Minister fails in quest for souls in the Midlands

As the Government took its White Paper to the nation it was troubled by a rare PR hitch and faced criticism from local councils

Estelle Morris is a disappointed woman. As the MP for Birmingham Yardley fully admits, if you want the soul of the Midlands, forget the press conference. What you need is Ed Doolan's lunchtime slot on Radio WM. For reasons best known to himself, Mr Doolan did not materialise at this, the first of the Government's White Paper roadshows.

But the minister in charge of the national curriculum and league tables did attract 200 teachers, administrators and politicos to the Birmingham conference. They had a serious message: for all the motivational talk about standards, it is her colleagues' plans for new school categories that need the urgent attention.

Billed as an "unprecedented" exercise in consultation, this was the first of seven regional conferences to sound out the nation's views on this autumn's education Bill.

Events at the Centennial Centre, in the backstreets of Edgbaston, got off to a grim start: the audience was made to sit through the Government's special video on the White Paper - all vivid colour and rippling piano.

Their consciousnesses duly raised, they stepped through to pre-allocated workshops, cleverly disguised as "syndicates". And here the consultation really did begin, as did a flow of awkward criticisms.

"The framework laid down here very much reinforces the existing differences between schools, particularly in relation to admissions," said Christine Davies, soon to be chief education officer in the Telford and Wrekin unitary authority. "It's regrettable that the opportunity to reduce the number of categories hasn't been taken. This will leave schools embroiled in selecting the best students for themselves rather than focusing on how to raise standards. I think it's a diversion."

She wanted no more than two categories of school - aided and community, for example, whereas the Government wants an additional "foundation" group which many believe will leave the grant-maintained sector intact.

Ms Davies was by no means alone. There was a strong feeling that the eventual categories must be much simpler, and must be seen as equal in status: "community schools" could be at a particular disadvantage.

Carol Adams, chief education officer in Shropshire and a member of the Government's standards task force, summed up the concern: "In our group we really did applaud the Government's intention to put standards first," she told the minister. "Yet after a long discussion we fairly unanimously wanted to suggest that you might just look at the GM schools changing their status - rather than than all schools changing their status.

"The risk is that, otherwise, everyone will be totally absorbed with the structures debate. We would like to be discussing the targets."

As would Professor Michael Barber, director of the Government's new standards and effectiveness unit and present on the podium. Try as he might, he could not prevent GM status emerging as the priority issue. "I would guess that's a fairly strongly felt message," he conceded.

There could have been even more of this stuff had teachers and heads been able to get their hands on the vital technical paper which explains the detail.

"I have been waiting for it to come out to our school for some considerable time," said Ellen Wallace, head of Woodnewton GM infant and nursery school in Corby. "The White Paper doesn't tell us how it's going to work."

But Ms Wallace also illustrates the Government's particular dilemma: like many GM heads she has no wish to return to local authority control. "I feel that what's coming over is a fairly negative response to the GM situation," she said. "The LEA sector has learned a lot from these schools. They have made the LEAs think. I think there should be a separate category for GM schools. "

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