Clarke struggles to get party going

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
Amid rows over top-up fees, the Education Secretary gave a strangely muted performance in Bournemouth. Michael Shaw and William Stewart report

There were no videos of smiling pupils working on shiny, new computers, no snazzily-titled initiatives and no starry-eyed New Labour headteachers wheeled out for the set-piece education debate.

Instead, this year's Labour party conference in Bournemouth saw Education Secretary Charles Clarke talking flatly from an autocue, as if reading a company's annual report to the shareholders.

Reeling off the Government's successes, he told delegates of the 20 per cent increase in the number of 11-year-olds able to read, write and count well, increased spending on education and the record numbers going to university.

But, responding to the conference's theme of "a future fair for all", he admitted there was still some way to go to ensure that all children and adults were able to achieve their potential.

There had been expectations that he would face a damaging confrontation over university tuition "top-up" fees. But negotiations by the four biggest unions meant that foundation hospitals were the lead issue to be debated at the conference, preventing a vote on fees from taking place.

The issue of top-up fees was a hot topic in fringe meetings, but there was a surprising lack of opposition from delegates during the formal education debate.

In his speech, Mr Clarke mounted a stout defence of his plans for university funding. He described eight new developments that would improve tuition fees, such as allowing graduates to pay the fees back through the tax system after graduation.

His explanation was greeted with silence.

Delegates were, however, more appreciative when he promised to give priority to the education of under-fives - an announcement that was heartily applauded - and when he apologised for this year's schools'

funding crisis. "I do regret the funding problems which arose in far too many schools earlier this year," he said.

One reason for Mr Clarke's low-key performance may have been due to his conference slot. Any grand announcement was doomed to be overshadowed by the afternoon's main attraction - Tony Blair.

But what did come across clearly from the Prime Minister and his education minister was the Government's commitment to its new buzz phrase for schools, "personalised learning". Mr Clarke referred to this approach when he spoke about the Pupil Achievement Tracker, the new computerised system for recording results which allows schools to focus on the progress of individual pupils. "In this changing world we know that education has to change to put the learner at the centre," he said.

Personalised learning was also raised by Mr Blair, who said progress in the 21st century demanded "teaching tailored to each child's ability." And David Miliband praised the headteacher who knew the name of every child in his school. Teachers, he said, will be expected to respond to the learning requirements of every child, using expertise from a range of people.

Mr Blair expressed concern in his speech at the continuing inequities in the education system.

"How is it fair that well-off parents who can't get their child into a decent secondary school, can choose to buy a good education but poor parents can't?" he asked. He went on to delight campaigners against selective schools when he praised the introduction of comprehensives in the 1960s. He described it as a progressive move which had "ended the division of children into success and failures age 11".

But David Chaytor, MP for Bury North and a member of the Commons education select committee, said he felt the Prime Minister's rhetoric about fairness was strange at a time when he was allowing schools to become increasingly selective.

"I find it staggering that Tony is prepared to put his job on the line and risk starting World War III in the Middle East but he is not able to offend a few grammar schools in Kent," he said.

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