Blunkett works for his applause

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
Geraldine Hackett opens two pages of reports from Brighton by charting the Secretary of State's gung-ho path to an ovation

David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, had the trickiest task of the week at the Labour party conference: to convey his belief that the Government has adopted the right solution on university fees and student loans to an unconvinced audience.

His reward: a minute-long standing ovation, in contrast to the polite reception given earlier in the week to Chancellor Gordon Brown's rather more upbeat message.

So concerned were party fixers about the lack of Labour unity which might have been highlighted by the education debate that at the last minute a mildly-critical motion on higher education was simply removed from the order paper.

Although there was never any real danger of the motion - which suggested that fees would inevitably lead to the return of a two-tier university system - being carried by the conference, behind-the-scenes manoeuvres led to its withdrawal by the constituency which had proposed it. What was left was an anodyne motion praising just about every other Government education policy - and a curiously muted debate.

Mr Blunkett took the opportunity yet again to give his case for reforming student finances. It would allow more to benefit from what he described as the privilege of going to university. The present system, he said, was biased in favour of students from families in higher income groups.

Of those now doing degrees, 80 per cent were from families in the A B socio-economic groups and only 17 per cent from the unskilled and semi-skilled groups. University students cost the state around Pounds 18,000, excluding maintenance support, a great deal more than is being spent on young people who leave school at 16, he said. As it stands, more than half the entrants to Oxford and Cambridge came from the independent sector.

"These proposals are not a betrayal of principle. They are placing funding more in line with further education and adult education where contributions are made to fees," he said. Mr Blunkett insisted the system of loan repayment planned is fairer that its predecessor. Graduates, he said, would not begin to repay loans until they had reached a certain income level and actual monthly repayments would be lower.

He said: "We are not talking about anyone having to put the money (fee contribution) down in September and we are geared to protect against the introduction of top-up fees."

Speakers had been lined up to support the Education Secretary. Anne Campbell, MP for Cambridge, told the conference that the proposals were necessary if the system was to cope with an extra 500,000 students.

In the event, there were only a few dissenting voices heard,including a young undergraduate's appeal for a system that did not add to students' financial burdens.

The real star of the afternoon was 11-year-old Charlie Nobbs (two years younger than the schoolboy paraded by the LibDems at their Eastbourne conference last week) who has won the top award for effort at his summer literacy school in a Brighton suburb. Like Mr Blunkett, he was given a standing ovation - after recounting how he had read four books (three more than he would normally have read) and had a fantastic time at his summer literacy school.

Liz Fletcher, Charlie's new head at Patcham high school in Brighton, said the summer school had been a joint venture with the community and the local education authority.

Summer schools, said Mr Blunkett, demonstrated the change in culture that was being brought about by a Government that had been in power barely 20 weeks. Among its achievements, he listed the replacement of nursery vouchers; the phasing out of the Assisted Places Scheme and the White Paper on raising standards in schools. Among his pledges were the introduction of a fair admissions system for schools; a block on schools dumping difficult children and Pounds 50 million to support the literacy drive.

It was a brave performance that appeared to be unscripted. The conference gave him a standing ovation, which was denied to the Chancellor earlier in the week.

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