Meet the parent minister

14th January 2005 at 00:00
Education Secretary Ruth Kelly made her priorities clear in her first speech in her new post. Michael Shaw reports

Figuring out where Ruth Kelly's priorities lie appears to be a matter of simple arithmetic.

Giving her first speech as Education Secretary last week at the North of England education conference, she succeeded in saying the word parent no fewer than 44 times in 40 minutes.

And teachers? Just a paltry six mentions, plus five for heads and one for teaching assistants.

In case anyone was slow to get the message, the elfin Ms Kelly declared that the challenge was "for all of us to be, first and foremost, parental champions".

Teachers attending the conference in Manchester were generous about Ms Kelly's performance, saying that she appeared passionate about schools, even if she had a lot still to learn.

Union officials and local authority officers were less charitable. There was light grumbling over the gala dinner in Manchester town hall afterwards that she had pitched her speech too blatantly towards winning family votes instead of addressing her immediate audience.

However, Ms Kelly's claims that she would make it her priority to go out and talk to school staff delighted the National Union of Teachers. The union sees the appointment of the new minister as its best chance to rebuild the relations with the Government that it spoiled when it refused to sign the 2003 workload deal.

Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the NUT, said: "She sees herself as the parents' champion, and that's OK - we've always argued that what is in the interest of parents and children is in the interest of teachers.

"And she wants to be the listening secretary of state. That is smashing, I have always wanted to be the listening general secretary of the NUT." Ms Kelly's speech was, as the local BBC TV news reported, "not exactly a barnstormer", however. The Education Secretary appeared nervous and on her best behaviour, speaking in a low, nasal tone only fractionally more animated than that of her predecessor, Charles Clarke.

When she finished she relaxed visibly, responding to questions with smiles and an exaggerated way of raising her eyebrows in surprise which will become a cartoonist's dream. Unsurprisingly, as she had only been in the job less than three weeks, she had no new announcements to make. However, she did drop a heavy hint about the Government's paper on exams for 14 to 19-year-olds, which will be published shortly.

Ms Kelly said she had been particularly interested by the recommendation in Mike Tomlinson's report that pupils should be allowed to take higher education modules while at school and would "be carefully examining how we make this a reality".

Another hint on the 14 to 19 white paper came from Stephen Twigg, recently promoted to school standards minister. In a question-and-answer session, Tim Collins, Conservative education spokesman, said that he hoped that the planned diploma would clearly retain A-levels and GCSEs and list all of a pupil's results in those exams on its first page to aid employers.

This approach was attacked by Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, who said that the new diploma should not simply be a "wrapper" on the same old exams.

But Mr Twigg nodded through Mr Collins' speech and said he agreed with his assessment, although he would not comment directly on the paper's content.

The timing of Ms Kelly's speech was unfortunate as it followed one which several delegates described as the most inspiring they had ever heard.

Maestro Benjamin Zander, the renowned conductor, received a standing ovation for a talk in which he explained his theory about the secret of life and got all 500 audience members to wave their hands and sing Beethoven's Ode to Joy in German. The conductor claimed he was impressed by the performance. "Wow," he exclaimed, "let's take this choir on the road."

Diary 21

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