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A week in education

The Prime Minister announced that he wanted to create a fairer Britain in his speech to the Labour party conference in Manchester. And his compassionate pledge for schools? To shut them or sack their heads if they slip below exam targets. The plan has not struck schools as especially fair, and was last week voted the least popular of the main parties' education policies in a poll of nearly 6,000 teachers.

More positive education announcements included the Government's intention to pilot free school meals for all primary children in selected areas of the country. This scheme has already been tried successfully in Hull. Aptly enough, the free school dinner plan was one that seemed hot to ministers a few years ago, but has since been allowed to go cold. Now, however, it is being carefully reheated.

Another positive new Labour plan for education, which may give some teachers deja vu, was the pledge to give children from the million most deprived families in England free laptops. The TES first revealed in June that ministers were planning the scheme, and that it would cost at least Pounds 250 million. In August, the Mirror quoted a civil servant, who dismissed the project as "unsustainable" on the grounds of cost. This week Jim Knight, schools minister, pledged Pounds 300 million to it.

A school in the West Midlands became the latest to make clip-on ties compulsory. Arthur Terry School in Sutton Coldfield said it had introduced them because they were neater. The Mail on Sunday noted the trend among pupils to wear traditional ties in a "chavvy" way, with a large knot, like Catherine Tate's unruly teenage character (hence its headline: "School transforms discipline by banning 'Am I bovvered?' tie"). Bramhall High School near Stockport introduced clip-on ties for roughly the same reason last year, although newspapers then claimed it had done so "in case pupils were throttled".

An all-out attack on sex education was launched by Sunday Times columnist Minette Marin. She suggested that it had helped encourage sexual delinquency, and that it had been a mistake to entrust it to teachers, "given how wildly they vary in ability and in moral attitudes". No mention, curiously, of other countries where sex education is compulsory and significantly more graphic. Such as, say, the Netherlands, where the teenage pregnancy rate is less than quarter of that in Britain.

Publicity coup of the week goes to the Tiffin boys' school in Kingston, south-west London, which is trying to limit the amount of time pupils spend on homework and encourage them to learn independently. Or, as The Times put it: "Top school lets pupils off homework to watch TV." Under its laudable scheme, pupils in Years 7 to 11 are given just one 40-minute assignment per night, plus 20 minutes of independent study. But a claim by Vanessa Feltz that the school had "cut homework to the bone" goes too far: research published this year suggested that the average pupil in England does only an hour a night anyway.

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