Labour seeks new recipe as Lib Dems get tough... ish

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
Michael Shaw previews Labour's most likely hot tickets in Brighton, and (opposite) reviews the Lib Dems' efforts.

A year ago it would have been unthinkable that school dinners would be one of the hottest issues at a Labour party conference.

But that was before a TV campaign by a celebrity chef and the arrival of Ruth Kelly, a mother of four, as Education Secretary.

Ms Kelly's plans to announce new standards for school meals have been heavily trailed in the run-up to next week's party conference in Brighton.

The guidelines, drawn up by nutritionists on the Government's school meals review panel, are unlikely to include bans on burgers and chips. But they are expected to be tougher than previous guidance and will encourage catering staff to limit the number of times they serve chips and to avoid fattier foods where possible.

The Government's campaign to make pupils healthier suffered a setback this week when it emerged that the fruit and vegetables which the Department of Health has been providing free to infant schools contained a quarter more pesticide residues than those bought in shops.

Ms Kelly is also expected to give the conference more hints about the education white paper, which is due to be published at the end of October at the earliest.

The paper is expected to include plans to expand popular schools, crack down more quickly on those that are failing, and get teachers to make better use of data on pupils to "personalise" education.

Headteacher unions have already said they may resist more government initiatives as they feel overloaded by the introduction of teaching and learning responsibility points and planning, preparation and assessment time this term.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister is expected to come to the defence of academies, which he continues to insist are crucial if Labour is to reshape education during its third term in power.

Tony Blair is likely to use his conference speech to point to the successes at some of the privately-sponsored schools, and hit back at grumblings from traditionalists who fear that they deepen inequality (see below).

The TES revealed last week that sponsors appeared to be receiving a "four for the price of three" deal to help the Government meet its commitment to create 200 academies within five years.

Labour members who are concerned about academies will have a chance to air their grievances at a fringe meeting on Tuesday organised by the Socialist Educational Association, titled "Academies - who needs them?"

Lord Adonis, the education minister and architect of the policy, has turned down an invitation to attend. So the job of defending the scheme has been left to Martin Salter, MP for Reading West and private parliamentary secretary to Jacqui Smith, the schools minister. Other fringe highlights will include a meeting organised by the General Teaching Council for England and the Social Market Foundation, at which Ms Kelly will hear criticisms from Carol Adams, GTC chief executive, about the damaging effects of over-testing.

Mr Blair's pledge to stand down before the next election will make delegates listen even more keenly to speeches by Gordon Brown, his likely successor. Teachers' union leaders say they are already detecting differences in their attitudes to education. While Mr Brown stressed the importance of free education for all at the Trades Union Congress last week, a speech by Mr Blair in London the day before suggested he saw state education as an add-on for those who could not afford fees.

Public services existed so "those who cannot afford to buy good healthcare or schooling are not at a disadvantage," Mr Blair said.

* michael.shaw@tes.co.uk

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