'Good news' minister is the panto star turn

12th January 2001 at 00:00
The pantomime season was still in full swing as education's great and good descended on Bridlington in East Riding for the North of England Education conference.

At night Nigel Pivaro, Coronation Street's bad boy Terry Duckworth, donned his turban as the evil uncle in Aladdin at the Spa Theatre. By day 400 education officers, councillors and some headteachers and governors staged their own spectacle at the venue.

The North of England conference - one of the most prestigious events for local authorities - used to give the predominantly Labour councils a chance to hiss the Tory education secretary . Under Labour things are not quite so simple.

Its theme of "Roots to grow, wings to fly " conjured up the surreal image of educating a half-animal, half-vegetable creature, one speaker observed.

Conference president Martyn Lewis, the TV newsreader and champion of good news stories, launched the proceedings.

This upbeat start contrasted with the gloomy pre-conference chit-chat as chief education officers tried to outdo each other's tales of recruitment crises and budget disasters while predicting worse to come.

However, Mr Lewis would surely have approved of the show's star turn on Friday afternoon - school standards minister Estelle Morris was positively brimming with good news as she met her Conservative and Liberal Democrat opposite numbers for a question-and-answer session.

Not only was there no recruitment crisis, the minister delared, but the education system had been completely revolutionised and anyone who couldn't see this was the sort of moaner who complained that exams were getting easier.

Strangely the audience, which had done its fair share of moaning over the previous 48 hours, loved it. They were soon patting themselves on the back as if they had just remembered their part in this revolution and giving their teachers back at home a round of applause.

The next act - Conservative education spokesman Theresa May - faced a challenge. How do you tell an audience of 400 mainly LEA delegates that you want to get rid of them? She started by saying that they wouldn't like a lot of what she had to say. They didn't.

When she reiterated that schools should receive 100 per cent of their funding - cutting local authorities out of the loop - a collective sharp intake of breath hissed around the auditorium.

It was followed by muttering and eventually laughter as she promised to tackle the recruitment crisis by cutting bureaucracy - including getting rid of local education authorities. However, Mrs May was applauded for highlighting the recruitment problem and poor teacher morale.

Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, made the only concrete proposal for tackling teacher shortages by promising final-year trainees a full starting salary, currently pound;15,141. But will the Liberal Democrats get an opportunity to honour that pledge? Probably not.

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