Tories give 11-plus a minus

6th October 2006 at 01:00
CONSERVATIVE PARTY CONFERENCE:Faithful hear sacred cows slaughtered by shadow education team

"Let optimism beat pessimism. Let sunshine win the day," beamed David Cameron opening his first conference as Conservative party leader. Whether the Tory, mainly old, faithful shared his enthusiasm, particularly where education was concerned, is doubtful. Stunned cries echoed around Bournemouth as Conservative sacred cows were slaughtered on the conference fringe.

The 11-plus, a school vouchers system and the idea of keeping teachers in check through testing were all victims of the shadow education team's ruthless purge of old manifesto favourites.

There was one new(ish) idea that may have alarming consequences for teachers. David Willetts, the shadow education secretary, told a fringe meeting that to raise standards he wanted to create more competition with more good state school places.

But one barrier preventing this was the rules on qualifications needed to teach. It is understood the Conservatives are impressed that top public schools can recruit high achieving graduates without any prior teacher training.

It began much more positively with Mr Willetts praising teachers during his speech to conference on Monday. "They've got so much wisdom, so much understanding of children," he gushed.

His address barely lasted ten minutes. But with the party's policy review still a year away from reporting there was little new and concrete he could say.

Instead it was touchy-feely stuff, well chosen for a session that felt much more like a daytime TV programme than a party political conference.

The backdrop set the tone. Gone were the traditional blocks of primary colour, replaced by photographs of sun-dappled foliage accompanying the new green Conservative logo that's supposed to look like an oak tree but actually resembles a squiggle.

Proceedings were, appropriately enough, opened by the slick looking TV doctor from the Richard and Judy show, who said how excited he was that this was a "truly interactive" conference.

Party - or should that be audience - members were given electronic keypads allowing them to vote in debates and text their comments which would then flash across the conference screen.

But it did not take long before we were reminded where we really were. A film of interviews with children was designed to touch conference with its tales of one-parent families and school overwork. Instead the biggest reaction, an audible murmur of pleasure, came when one child called for the return of the national service.

There were more displays of true Tory grassroots feeling on the fringe. "I was the son of a plumber and went through the 11 plus, grammar school and Cambridge and got an excellent education," a member from Shrewsbury told Mr Willetts.

The shadow education secretary then mercilessly demolished the argument for selection in a way that would have had left- wing Labour MPs weeping with joy. The 11-plus could no longer be seen as meritocratic when research showed that children from lower classes were already well behind at the age of four.

Calls for a vouchers system that Mr Willetts admitted he had found "mesmerising" 20 years ago were given similarly short shrift, much to the annoyance of Chris Woodhead. The former chief schools inspector, one of many victims of the Conservative's own security pass fiasco, was only able to gain entry with a personal police escort. But it meant there was someone to prevent him from being lynched by angry teaching union representatives in the audience who listened as he berated history teaching in state schools as having nothing to with actual history and the geography curriculum as "a pamphlet for Greenpeace, little more".

His solution? Strangely for a man who now runs his own chain of private schools he wants the state to withdraw from education altogether.

The most popular man in Bournemouth was Jamie Oliver, praised by both Mr Willetts and Mr Cameron for his school dinners crusade. And when Boris Johnson reportedly criticised the TV chef, a baying mob of reporters forced him into a hurried denial. A text message from a party member flashed on the conference screen seemed to sum up the Conservative mood: "Jamie Oliver in the cabinet. Pukka!"

cartoon, P20

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