War fears take heat off Estelle

28th September 2001 at 01:00
Privatisation and teacher shortages will make activists mutinous next week. Nic Barnard and Clare Dean report

ESTELLE Morris is set to deliver her first Labour party conference speech as Education Secretary despite plans to cut short the week because of preparations for war in Afghanistan.

But she may be spared the scrutiny of a full-blown education debate, and delegates' minds will certainly be on other things.

As The TES went to press, conference organisers were considering merging it into a wider debate on public services in which privatisation in the health service is likely to draw most ire.

Labour's post-election conference will be nothing like that following its first-term victory. In 1997 the Government hit the ground running and celebrated that fact with a conference that was an orgy of self-congratulation. Brighton 2001, however, promises to be much more low key.

Following its second landslide win at the General Election, the Government has had a muted summer as discontent simmered over public-service privatisation.

Now all that has been overshadowed by the events in America on September 11. But Ms Morris must be aware of the risk that she'll get as rough a ride as you can get in the sanitised new Labour party, with teaching unions on hand at three high-profile fringe meetings to set out in fine detail their many concerns.

She addresses activists against a background of teacher shortages, threats of industrial action in the 35-hour week campaign and predictions that the Government will miss its literacy and numeracy targets next year.

If you add to this list the controversial plans for a radical reform of secondary schools, she arguably faces one of the toughest challenges in the Cabinet - and does so with a relatively inexperienced team of ministers, a new permanent secretary and new director general of schools.

Worse, the three most important education jobs are now up for grabs: head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, chief inspector at the Office for Standards in Education and head of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit.

She has taken every chance to cheer for teachers - expect more lavish praise in her speech - and her first four months have been marked by tactical retreats over AS-levels and skills tests for trainee teachers. But over her secondary reforms she will have to be tough.

"A lot of heat, not much light," was Graham Lane's prediction for any education debate. The Labour education chair of the Local Government Association said many delegates would be opposed in principle to the White Paper. "But not many of them will have actually read it."

It is on the fringes that dissent is most likely to manifest itself over privatisation and the perceived threat to comprehensive education from specialist schools.

MEPGlenys Kinnock, who will address a Campaign for State Education fringe meeting, said: "It's quite dangerous to go down the road of that kind of selection at such an early age.

"I'm quite conscious of how disadvantaged children with special needs are, for example."

Members supported the focus on secondary schools but were worried about privatisation and wanted to see more cash.

"We believe in the most egalitarian approach," she said.

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