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Upstaged by Don and Dave

Frances Rafferty on the Education Secretary's lacklustre performance at the North of England Education Conference. It was a puzzlingly low key performance from Gillian Shephard, Education Secretary, last week at the North of England Education Conference.

The event, held this year in a snowy Sheffield, is traditionally where the education world kicks off for the new year. But it was not the best of starts - and not just because most of the delegates and guests seemed to be suffering from 'flu.

The conference, a largely local education authority affair, has not been known recently as a favoured venue of ministers. John Patten, Mrs Shephard's predecessor, once famously boycotted it. Mrs Shephard, however, is usually up to most audiences, yet despite being good humoured and sparky with journalists before her speech, she was not turning the charm on for the delegates. At one point she made a rather ungracious swipe at the education system in Yorkshire for falling behind other parts of the country. Mr Patten would have been proud of her. Delegates later hissed when she criticised the London boroughs of Islington, Tower Hamlets and Southwark.

The message of the speech - that Britain must drive up its skill levels to become internationally competitive - was also curious. It was billed as a back to basics message. She promised that the Government aimed to improve literacy and numeracy. It has called upon a number of agencies, including the Office for Standards in Education, the Teacher Training Agency, the Employment Service and training and enterprise councils to co-ordinate a strategy. Teenagers who have left school will be able to attend "refresher" courses.

Employers, she said, have widespread concerns about the literacy and numeracy standards of job applicants - including graduates.

When it was put to her at a press conference that it seemed strange for her to be berating educational standards at the beginning of the 18th year the Conservatives have been in Government, she called the question stupid. The Conservatives were doing something about it, she said.

She added there was now better and more consistent data about school performances in Britain than any other country and the publication of primary league tables this spring will add more information. She said: "We will very shortly be at the point where we have a sufficient run of data to provide measures of the value added between different key stages for the same cohort of pupils. At that point the difference which schools make will become even clearer."

She also used the speech to announce that a further 41 schools have been granted technology college status, bringing the total to 222. She said the first 32 applications to become sports and arts colleges have arrived at her department and the additional Pounds 20 million, announced in the recent public expenditure round, for the programme would allow 300 specialist secondary schools.

Then Mrs Shephard talked of her success in reducing unemployment and had the obligatory bash at Europe saying Britain must not be tied down with unnecessary regulations, for example the Social Chapter or a minimum wage, if it is to compete on the world market.

It was difficult for Mrs Shephard to pull new rabbits out of her hat. She cannot preempt an unwritten election manifesto, but she could have been more upbeat. She failed to rise to Sir Bryan Nicholson, the former president of the Confederation for British Industry, who introduced her by revealing that she had once worked for him at the Manpower Services Commission. Delegates also complained that she appeared to be doodling during the question session at the end.

There was a better humoured performance for delegates in the Dave and Don show. Labour's David Blunkett and Don Foster, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, regularly share platforms and agree on many points of policy. Mr Foster did attempt to put yellow water between them by questioning Mr Blunkett's support for home-school contracts and knocking the Labour party for not voting against the penny cut in income tax announced in the Budget - this is taking money away from education, he said.

Mr Blunkett in turn announced that a Labour government would use lottery money to finance a programme to ensure that all teachers are trained in the use of information technology. Basic competence in IT will be a criteria for qualified teacher status. He also said he intended to reshape the inspection service, by eliminating the tendering process and using the money it freed to provide a local advice and support service. He would still require it to be independent rather than returning to the old system which allowed collusion between schools and the inspectors.

And just to show how with-it he his, he evoked the reputation of the Spice Girls - the chartbusters who called the Prime Minister a boring pillock - and put their questionable literacy level down to the fact they were Thatcher's children. "Under the Tories and for the Tories," he said.

The case for information technology - much championed by Mr Blunkett - was put by Margaret Bell, the chief executive of the National Council for Educational Technology. It was a pity she could not get her visual aids to work.

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