Chalk Talk: Teachers find it's even grimmer up north

To the North of England Education Conference in Sheffield last week – a quaint little ritual whereby the great and the good in the world of education gather in January in one of the areas of the country most likely to be snowbound.

In fact, one of those who gained most publicity from the conference – Stephen Twigg, Labour's education spokesman – did not even manage to turn up, although in his case he and another speaker, Lord Professor Robert Winston, were stymied by someone throwing themselves in front of a train. (Twigg's speech, calling for cadet forces to be established in state schools, was already circulating around the conference centre when he pulled out.)

Lord Winston did arrive later – after having to take a taxi for part of the journey. He is chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University so it would probably have been a bit more embarrassing for him not to appear at a conference held at his university.

In days of yore, the Education Secretary would turn up and outline his or her strategy for the year ahead. In this case, though, we had Schools Minister Elizabeth Truss outlining the right (in every sense of the word!) way to teach maths, to an audience that included disbelieving teachers – who probably thought they should respond by telling her the right way to run the country.

Friday saw guest speakers presented to the audience with the kind of frenzy one normally associates with a 20/20 cricket match, as conference organisers sought to cram everyone in and send people home before they became snowbound for the weekend.

Sometimes, it seems, you can really be left out in the cold if you are an ex-minister.

Former Children's Minister Tim Loughton told MPs on the education select committee how his old department, the Department for Education, did not even respond to written questions he tabled in the House of Commons.

"A lot of my questions haven't been answered," he said, "and many have been answered unsatisfactorily."

Unimpressed, he then tabled another question asking how many questions had not been answered within the five-day recommended period for answering MPs' queries.

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