Shephard hints at more cash for education

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The Independent Online

Schools have been given new hope that this year's spending cuts may not be repeated.

Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, told the Secondary Heads Association (SHA) conference yesterday that education would be the top priority for the Government if economic growth reaped dividends.

Hinting that she was on the side of the schools and would argue in favour of extra money for education, Mrs Shephard asked for evidence of damage caused by cuts and promised to use the information when discussing budgets with the Treasury.

A wave of cuts following the Government's refusal to fund a 2.7 per cent increase in teachers' pay this year has led to protests, resignations by school governors and the setting of illegal budgets.

Mrs Shephard told the headteachers: "The evidence of the difficulties that there have been in some areas this year will be used by me in Cabinet discussions. You can be certain of that.

"I understand that some of you are going through a very difficult time and I want you to help me to see if we can make things better next year."

Despite a much warmer reception than the ones given in previous years to her predecessor, John Patten, Mrs Shephard faced polite but hostile questioning over funding. One head asked why he had £2,400 per year for each of his A level students when 11-year-olds on the assisted places scheme in local independent schools received state subsidies of up to £6,000 for their education.

Another demanded, but failed to get, assurances that teachers' pay settlements would be funded in future.

Mrs Shephard did say, however, that John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, was looking again at how spending assessment for different areas was calculated.

John Dunford, vice-president of SHA, warned her that this year's unrest could be followed by much worse, and he attacked the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, as "the Eric Cantona of the Government".

"He's tearing over the fence, studs first, and we are in the front row," Mr Dunford said.

"If the education of children is damaged by successive cuts in order to reduce direct taxation before a general election, the people of this country will not forgive your government."

Mrs Shephard also announced a wide-ranging review of post-16 education which could lead to sixth-formers taking "core skills" such as information technology and languages alongside their A-levels. The review is to be conducted by Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

Mrs Shephard suggested the introduction of an intermediate exam to be taken one year after GCSEs, and a range of other measures designed to cut the drop-out rate from sixth forms. At the beginning of a round of speeches to the Easter teachers' conferences, she won warm applause for the proposals.

Headteachers and other educationists have been complaining for a number of years that the predominance of A-levels makes the sixth-form curriculum too narrow. However, the A-level examinations must remain as rigorous as ever, Mrs Shephard said.