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PM hints at a funding bonanza

IT was a historic first appearance at a teachers' conference by a serving prime minister, but it proved a curiously bloodless speech.

Tony Blair failed to fire up the Association of Teachers and Lecturers at least until he had finished his script. It was only as he took questions from the floor, that he found his sense of passion, and eventually earned a standing ovation from the Torquay conference.

He failed to apologise for Alistair Campbell's sweeping dismissal of "bog-standard comprehensives", ("What's important is not to get hung up on a phrase," he smirked, adding lamely: "Some of these things get flammed up...") and the issue of workload was never truly addressed.

But delegates did come away with a sense that education still mattered o this prime minister. There, repeated, was the pledge that education spending would rise as a share of the nation's wealth, and a hint - off-the-cuff and surely not cleared with Gordon Brown - that his ultimate ambition was for state funding to match that of private schools.

"The main objective is to have a state education system that is as good in its facilities and its investment as the independent sector," he said. "Never in a million years" would he have become prime minister or "done anything decent" in his life without his first-class education (at private Fettes School). He saw constituents in Sedgefield who had not had that opportunity and whose lives were blighted. "The chances I got I want for everyone in this country," he said.

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