School effectiveness is Shephard's watchword

Geraldine Hackett & Frances Rafferty

The Conservative party has yet to resolve its internal wrangle over whether the political gain from promoting grant-maintained schools should take precedence over the case for higher standards.

In her speech to the Blackpool conference, Gillian Shephard, Education and Employment Secretary, made no major policy announcements but concentrated on initiatives to make schools more effective. She promised a new professional qualification for heads, and greater recognition for speaking skills in GCSEs.

Her main concerns were youth training and achieving national targets in academic and vocational qualifications, in contrast with speakers from the floor who constantly raised the issue of grant-maintained schools.

However, Mrs Shephard did say that the Government should take the credit for introducing GM schools. They were, she said, producing excellent results and were hugely popular with parents. Like other delegates, she could not resist a jibe at Tony Blair for his decision to send his son Euan to a GM school, the London Oratory.

While she confidently predicted there would be more GM schools, she made no mention of the Prime Minister's promise to expand the sector by introducing a fast track for church schools to opt out, and to allow such schools greater freedom to select pupils.

Neither was there any commitment to expand the Assisted Places Scheme - that had been predicted for the conference - but it may be that other announcements on education have been left to John Major.

It might have been possible to have been triumphal about the nursery vouchers scheme, but the lack of enthusiasm from LEAs has reduced the prospects of a large-scale pilot. Mrs Shephard could name only three small Tory-controlled London boroughs - Westminster, Wandsworth, and Kensington and Chelsea, which are willing participants in the first phase.

However, she pointed out that by April 1997, parents of every four-year-old will have a voucher worth Pounds 1,100 to spend on a pre-school place of their choice. She said: "The Labour party have an aim for nursery education - we have a practical plan of action backed with cash, Pounds 730 million in all. "

On the thornier question of whether spending on education would be maintained in a tough public expenditure round, she merely repeated Mr Major's pledge that schools would be at the front of the Government's priorities as the economy grows. "I can assure you today that this pledge stands - and it is a priority which the whole Cabinet is determined to pursue," she said.

No new money has been allocated to fund courses for the professional qualifications for heads announced this week. In a briefing to journalists, Mrs Shephard said such courses were more likely to be in the mode of the Open University rather than attendance at colleges. The details had yet to be worked out and resources would be made available if necessary, she said.

Much of her conference speech was devoted to attacking Labour's policies. She claimed Tony Blair and his colleagues had voted against parental choice, the national curriculum and regular inspection of schools. Labour's new initiatives - associate teachers, nursery provision, a tough school inspection regime and technology on every school's curriculum - had, she said, already been undertaken by the present government.

In terms of the Conservatives' strategy for fighting the next general election, it would appear from what Mrs Shephard did not say, that the party remains uncertain and so will focus its election campaign on raising standards, or attempt to embarrass the Labour party about the future of GM schools.

* Education will be spared the deepest cuts in one of the most "ruthless" public spending rounds so far, the Prime Minister said this week in Blackpool.

His message to party agents, writes Frances Rafferty, was that savings must be made to allow tax cuts in the Budget next month. He said: "To cut taxes we must lower spending. This means ruthlessly setting our priorities. Education will be high on that list."

But that was not enough for James Pawsey, chairman of the Conservative backbench education committee, who said: "The party's successes in education are being undermined by the failure of the Government to put the money in. Standards are rising, more people are going to university and into further education, and therefore more money is needed. But I'm particularly concerned that the Government must fully fund the teachers' pay award recommended by the Review Body."

Outside the Winter Gardens a large group of local parents noisily demonstrated against cuts. They said Lancashire schools face a cut of 8 per cent to their budgets.

Inside, party activists were warming to Mr Major's promise to cut taxes. One seasoned conference-goer said: "The tax-cuts-at-all-costs brigade are highly vocal and visible this year, but there are those among us happy to forgo lower taxes in order to see education protected."

Demitri Coryton, chairman of the left-leaning Conservative Education Association, said: "We expect the Government to fund the review body's pay award this year. But even so, I will be lobbying for more money on top. "

Robin Squire, education minister, was not making any promises. He said at a National Union of Teachers' fringe meeting: "It is important not to make a direct comparison between funding and standards. The cost of a bad teacher is the same as that of a good teacher."

He did, however, say that the Government was looking into various ways of improving the way schools are funded.

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