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Week in perspective

PRIME Minister Tony Blair, struggling after recent setbacks over high fuel prices, pensions and fresh allegations over party donations from Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, staged a fight-back at this week's Labour conference in Brighton.

Rebuffing calls from fuel lobbyists for special treatment, and claiming Tory leader William Hague wanted to cut public spending by pound;16 billion, he insisted he would never put tax cuts before education spending.

He appealed to wavering voters to give Labour a second term to enable him to complete "the most radical reform in public services" since 1945. He promised to be more radical and said that the pace of reform would quicken.

Outlining plans for a 10-year overhaul of both the National Health Service and transport, he said that education would nevertheless continue to be "the passion" of his government. The share of national wealth spent on education would continue to rise if Labour won the election, he said.

He put the transformation of secondary education at the top of his priority list. By 2004, the number of specialist schools would be doubled to 1,000. An extra pound;1bn would be spent on information technology, providing a computer for every five secondary pupils.

And as British athletes in Sydney produced their biggest medal haul in half a century, he announced plans to invest pound;750 million of lottery money into sports, with schools earmarked for a major share of the cash.

Promises of further spending on rebuilding crumbling schools (pound;8bn) and extending free nursery places to all three-year-olds (pound;2bn) also came rom Education Secretary David Blunkett.

The Government's determination to press ahead with reforms to

comprehensive schools came as the campaign to abolish the remaining 164 grammar schools showed signs of crumbling.

Activists seeking to force parental ballots over the future of grammar schools in Kent decided to call off their bid, complaining it was virtually impossible to meet the conditions laid down by ministers.

In his conference speech, the Prime Minister also promised to protect Britain's overseas aid budget from future cuts in spending, underpinning his commitment to boosting education in the world's poorest countries.

This week, Chancellor Gordon Brown and International Development Secretary Clare Short went to Prague for an International Monetary Fund and World Bank meeting, where they backed an international plan to double to 20 the number of countries to benefit from a pound;20bn debt relief package.

But the British ministers, having managed to avoid anti-poverty protesters, found themselves under siege from aid organisations.

The charge was led by Oxfam, which accused Britain of undermining efforts to help by restricting aid programmes to countries with specific education programmes committed to getting "out of conflict and into debt reduction".

It is feared that Britain's approach of only providing aid with strings attached will hold up progress towards achieving the aim of the recent World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, of providing a primary-school place for every child in the world by 2015.

TES campaign, 22-24

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