Schools still top Blair's agenda

LABOUR PARTY CONFERENCE Brown promises pound;8,000 per pupil * PM urges further education reform for teenagers

Any doubts about where education lies in the Government's priorities were laid firmly to rest in Manchester this week.

The Prime Minister and his odds-on successor used career-defining speeches to restate Labour's belief in the importance of schools and set them some tough targets into the bargain.

The party's annual conference, a huge gathering of lobbyists, media and corporate sponsors, with the odd ordinary member thrown in, was as stage-managed as ever.

But as delegates basked in an unseasonably balmy Manchester, negotiating the warm wine and sweaty samosas of the fringe gatherings, plenty of clues about how the renewed commitment to education will manifest itself were being dropped.

Among them were a continuing emphasis on parent power, a greater commitment to pupils with special educational needs and suggestions that a rethink on 14 to 19 education could be under way.

Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Education, made good use of his first real opportunity to strut his stuff on the big stage in charge of the nation's schools.

There was a joke: "The Tories thought a creche was something that happened between two Range Rovers in Tunbridge Wells."

He won some easy applause with a call on private schools to justify their charitable status by allowing all children to use their facilities.

And it was all rounded off with a couple of solid announcements with more money for children in care and a crackdown on coursework cheating.

But it was another cabinet big beast who was first to put schools at centre stage. Exactly a decade ago, Tony Blair used a speech to Labour party conference to make his famous commitment to "education, education, education".

So it seemed appropriate that as the Prime Minister bade farewell to the party faithful, the man widely expected to succeed him was taking up the baton. "In education we must aim to be the world's number one," boomed Gordon Brown. That meant: "One-to-one learning, more help for parents, tackling failing schools, every child challenged and brought on, and no child held back or left behind."

Whether this was a deliberate echo of President Bush's controversial "no child left behind" school reforms, which US critics say have been badly underfunded, was unclear.

But the Chancellor addressed UK education funding by restating his budget promise that, "step by step", annual investment in state schools would rise from pound;5,500 per pupil to the pound;8,000 enjoyed today by their independent - school counterparts.

Of course, without a definite date that goal is meaningless. Providing spending increases with inflation, Mr Brown, who challenged other parties to "invest in education first", is bound to reach it eventually.

But that did not stop the delegates from applauding or the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers from welcoming the pledge. John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of Schools and Colleges g was more caustic describing it as "just a soundbite".

But education ministers believe that continued references to closing the gap can only enhance their chances in the next spending round. Or as one said: "Eight thousand pounds! I'll have some of that!" The remark was typical of the more easy-going style adopted by the new education team compared with their predecessors.

Mr Johnson, the dapper ex-mod famous for making female hacks swoon, charmed his way through conference. As a possible contender in the party leadership contest, albeit one that may never take place, he was a star fringe attraction, so much so that meetings emptied as soon he left. But schools minister Jim Knight was glad his own appearances were not subject to the same scrutiny and admitted to enjoying being off the Department for Education and Skills leash. It showed. Asked why schools should join the healthy schools programme, he said: "Because if you are not doing it, we will send the boys round."

But it was Mr Blair's speech that left schools with the toughest challenge.

After revealing that he is prepared to legally ban junk food advertising to children and warning that his successor needed to focus on parents, he called for a transformation in secondary education.

It was within reach for three-quarters of pupils to get good results, he said, effectively calling for the five good GCSEs pass rate to be raised from 56 to 75 per cent.

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