Blair and Kelly back 'parent power' as they herald yet more upheaval in schools, report William Stewart and Michael Shaw
Reform-weary teachers faced disappointment this week as Labour used its annual conference to launch even more radical changes for schools with a new push for parent power.
Prime Minister Tony Blair and Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, told delegates in Brighton that the Government wanted to go further to increase parental choice and expand academies and foundation schools.
"Every time I've ever introduced a reform in Government, I wish in retrospect I had gone further," said Mr Blair. "Specialist schools, denounced at the time, have performed better than traditional comprehensives. Fact," he declared. "City academies are massively over-subscribed. Fact."
The ministers used their speeches to promote ideas expected in the forthcoming education white paper which is expected to allow parents to call in Ofsted inspectors and for failing schools to be closed within a year. The Prime Minister said the paper was "again reform, again some of it difficult".
While last year's conference had focused on ways to win votes, ministers this year seemed keener to stress the moral purpose of reforms. Ms Kelly said she was disappointed that social inequality in education may have worsened under Labour. Official figures suggest that poorer pupils are lagging even further behind in some exams.
She said plans to "personalise" education using pupil data would be crucial to helping disadvantaged students. "We need to talk much more about inequality and about teaching quality," she said.
Ms Kelly also had a more populist announcement up her sleeve - plans to introduce strict nutritional standards in schools.
She promised "detailed proposals for tough new nutritional standards".
"Today I can announce that I will ban low-quality processed bangers and burgers being served in schools from September," she said Advisers to Ms Kelly said that the legal powers to stop schools serving unhealthy food, including that in vending machines, would be part of next month's white paper. The removal of machines may be costly; John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said secondaries can earn around pound;15,000 a year if they have two or three machines.
So might Gordon Brown, who remains favourite to replace Mr Blair before the next election, take his foot off the gas? Not on your nelly. "The only future of the Labour party is as the party of reform," boomed the Chancellor.
But he did focus on different aspects of education to the Prime Minister, talking about skills and education maintenance allowances, rather than foundation schools and parental choice.
Like Ms Kelly, Mr Brown stressed the moral value of reducing inequality.
"Our economic mission for Britain - to be number one in education - comes together with our moral cause - that every child has the best start in life, that no one is left behind," he said.
Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said: "It is time for the Government to stop that mantra of reform, particularly in education where the workforce has responded magnificently to the challenges of the previous two terms."
Ministers said they detected that party members were warming to academies, and several delegates said that they felt less hostile after successes at some of the privately-sponsored schools.
But a fringe meeting organised by the Socialist Educational Association heard Labour councillors complain they were being blackmailed into opening academies because they would otherwise lose funding to rebuild schools.
BLAIR VS BROWN
What Tony Blair and Gordon Brown said about education. Blair - "Education is Government's number one priority."
What Blair mentioned:
* Specialist schools perform better than comprehensives
* City academies are oversubscribed and should be expanded
* Heads should get the full disciplinary powers they want
* Extended schools
* Childcare to be available from 8am to 6pm for all.
* Choice should not be monopoly of the wealthy Brown - "In this new world a nation cannot be first in prosperity if you are second in education."
What Brown mentioned:
* Importance of education so Britain can compete globally
* Education to be available from age 3 to 18
* Lead professionals for every child
* Education maintenance allowances
* Lifelong learning and trade union education
* Education should be for moral as well as economic reasons