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Romancing the heads

Details such as the state of toilets could separate specialist schools from less fragrant comprehensives, top DfES man tells conference.

Michael Shaw and Neal Smith report

Specialist schools wishing to rise above the bog-standard should take a closer look at their toilets.

That was the advice from Peter Housden, the Department for Education and Skills' director general of schools, to this year's Specialist Schools Trust conference in Birmingham.

Headteachers should have a "proper and enduring concern with school toilets", he said. "In shopping malls they don't just clean their toilets at the end of the day - they clean them three or four times. That is the type of attention to detail that creates a good experience for the pupils."

The speech referred to the comments by the Prime Minister's former spokesman Alistair Campbell who was criticised for stating that "the day of the bog-standard comprehensive school" was over.

Mr Housden comments made came in an ad-libbed departure from an official speech he delivered on behalf of schools minister David Miliband. The minister had been forced to stay in London to give the Government desperately-needed support in the vote over foundation hospitals.

Mr Miliband should feel sorry that he missed out. The conference was a lavish three days of seminars and talks, which attracted more than 1,500 of England's most thrusting senior staff.

No expense seemed to have been spared. The main auditorium alone at Birmingham's International Conference Centre can cost pound;26,000 a day, yet it was only one of a dozen halls the trust hired.

The theme of the conference was "Leaders in the Global Learning Community", and the trust took the title seriously, inviting an array of speakers from the US and Australia as well as organising a live video link to a school 7,000 miles away in South Africa. (Several delegates asked why Mr Miliband could not also have appeared via a video link, when it was possible for a school in an impoverished township outside of Cape Town.) Dame Anita Roddick, the globe-trotting founder of The Body Shop, was also given the chance to of share her philosophies with delegates. In the past year, Dame Anita has become a governor of The Littlehampton community school, in Sussex, which she helped to win specialist business and enterprise status.

She spoke of the need for "romance" in education - as well as the ills of globalisation and how to become an entrepreneur. (Dame Anita was afterwards seen practising what she preached, selling dozens of signed books, having secured an appearance fee, believed to be pound;500, which she said she would use to promote grass-roots activism).

Although the overall mood was triumphant, Sir Cyril Taylor, the trust's chairman, was visibly rattled by recent criticism of the initiative and used his keynote speech to rail at "naysayers".

He rejected accusations in last week's TES by Martin Rogers, of The Education Network, a local government policy body, that specialisation was widening the gap between successful and struggling schools. In fact, said Sir Cyril, many specialist colleges were helping their less successful neighbours.

Sir Cyril told the delegates they should take one message back to their schools: "I think the headteachers of the specialist school movement are the bows from which our children as living arrows are sent forth."

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