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No own goals as Clarke shows defence is best form of attack

As research shows people are losing confidence in government policy, the Education Secretary stands up to defend it

IT may carry dubious overtones in these troubled times, but Charles Clarke this week chose to follow in the footsteps of US presidents and Tony Blair by throwing open his department's doors to the press.

Reporters were given an hour of the Education Secretary's time for a briefing on an "issue of the day", before firing questions at Mr Clarke.

It proved a good showcase for Mr Clarke's confident personality who, working without help from his aides, answered all questions in his robust style.

The venue was a fifth-floor office at the Department for Education and Skills overlooking Whitehall. A poster on the wall read "we listen and value diversity", and looking at the assembled hacks, with their differing agendas, it was just as well.

Mr Clarke began by admitting the format left him vulnerable to gaffes. "I'm keen to avoid own goals if at all possible, but the way in which the world works means I cannot be completely confident about that," he said.

But howlers were there none, as the Education Secretary launched a defence of the target-setting and testing regime. Chief inspector David Bell claimed last week that national targets left teachers feeling threatened and defeated. Mr Clarke used slides to show how schools with the same proportion of pupils on free school meals were achieving differing key stage 2 results, giving scope for more improvement.

He added: "I accept that some (teachers) do feel demotivated. But I do not think that any teacher should be demotivated by targets."

He then appeared almost to be conceding that next year's KS2 targets in English, maths and science will not be hit. He said: "I think it would be very difficult to hit all three targets. I'm optimistic that, this year and next year, we will make progress towards those targets."

However, the big talking point of the day was the call by the Headmasters'

and Headmistresses' Conference and the Girls' School Associationfor private schools to boycott Bristol University over its comprehensive- friendly admissions policy .

Mr Clarke called the boycott misguided and described it as gesture politics. "What any mature person would do is to have a conversation with Bristol about it," he said.

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