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Roughest of rides for Shephard's understudy

Josephine Gardiner reports from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities annual education conference Observers would have needed hearts of stone to remain unmoved by the plight of education minister Lord Henley as he sweated under the assembled wrath of the metropolitan education authorities at their annual conference in Wakefield last Friday.

Acting as a last-minute substitute for Gillian Shephard, who, we learned, had been unavoidably and conveniently detained in Spain on EC business, the unfortunate minister was given the roughest of rides by AMA delegates on every aspect of Government policy, from opting out to nursery vouchers.

He wrong-footed the conference at the start of his speech when he urged delegates to ignore exaggerated reports about the Government's plans on work experience for 14-year-olds: "We've no intention of lowering the school-leaving age or sending children down mines." A cry of "what mines?" could be heard around the hall - this was Yorkshire after all.

Graham Lane, chair of the AMA's education committee, was particularly keen for Lord Henley to confirm or deny The TES report that the Government was considering putting church schools on a fast track to grant-maintained status by scrapping parental ballots.

His response to this, and all subsequent awkward questions was to ask delegates "not to believe everything you read in the newspapers". "I have no comment beyond the measures referred to in John Major's speech in Birmingham. Of course we want the grant-maintained sector to expand, but it is a subject for consultation and for Parliament."

Delegates were amused the next morning to read in the newspapers that Lord Henley had been warning them about confirmation of a Department for Education and Employment consultation paper which had been published a couple of hours after his speech - in which options included all church schools becoming GM.

Lord Henley's responses to a battery of anxious questions about the operation of the nursery vouchers scheme were good-humoured; he seemed genuinely baffled rather than disingenuous. Against a background of heckling, he insisted that vouchers were "misunderstood", and would be "cost neutral" to LEAs, and stonewalled delegates who asked what would happen to all the three-year olds they were currently educating. A question on class size elicited the opinion that "teaching techniques are more important" and that numbers only make a difference "if you reduce the class right down to 10 or 12 - there's not much difference between 28 and 30".

The audience's uproar was exceeded only when he defended the assisted places scheme.

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