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Planning and design organisations are queueing up to take part in John Prescott's long-awaited urban summit in late October, the deputy prime minister's office said yesterday, reported the Financial Times (p2).

Up to 700 people are thought to have expressed an interest in attending the main conference, even though the conference papers and delegate application forms have only just been despatched. An official said the office had received three times more applications to take part in the conference fringe than it would have space to accommodate in Birmingham's International Conference Centre.

Mr Prescott's office might even have to restrict attendance by groups such as local authorities to ensure enough voluntary organisations, design experts and other outsiders could attend, an official said.

The two-day summit was promised in an urban white paper published by Mr Prescott in November 2000, as a forum for national debate on how to regenerate Britain's cities.


Ministers are to investigate why more than a quarter of teenagers fail examinations in vocational subjects such as business or information technology when almost everyone is passing academic GCSE courses, reported the Financial Times (p3).

Yesterday's GCSE results showed that the pass rate was steady at 97.9%, compared with just 72% for Intermediate GNVQs, the new work-related exam courses. The pass rate at A-level jumped 4.5 percentage points to 94.3% last week, while the pass rate in the new Vocational A-levels was 78.7%.

A senior adviser to education secretary Estelle Morris said: 'We always said vocational exams would be rigorous and these results show they are. We are determined to establish parity of esteem with academic exams.'

Meanwhile, a 'laddish culture' among boys threatens the government's reforms in schools, said headteachers, as the overall GCSE results showed the 'gender gap' widening again. The proportion of girls' entries awarded C or better rose from 61.5% to 62.4%. For boys the same measure rose from 52.6% to 53.4%.


A boom in budget flights to the Costas has led to a surge in the number of pupils studying Spanish at school, reported The Times (p1).

GCSE results released today show a rise of nearly 7% in the number of pupils studying the subject, compared with sharp drops in other languages. The German Embassy said the falls - 6.6% in German and 2.5% in French - showed the need for the government to take language learning more seriously.

The total takeup of all foreign languages was down by 2.6% at GCSE. AT A-level the drop was sharper - down 11.9%, including falls of 17% in German and 13% in French. Spanish, the only one to record an increase, rose by 6.7% at GCSE and 1% at A-level.

The department for education and skills commented: 'We have already made clear that the way to improve the language skills in this country is to encourage children to start learning them from an early age. We want all primary school children to have the opportunity to learn a modern foreign language and will be announcing a language strategy in the autumn.'


The Office of Fair Trading is to examine the£2bn-plus licensed taxi market, which excludes minicabs but includes London's black cabs, to see if regulation by local authorities is working well for consumers, reported the Financial Times (p3).

Prices and waiting times will be among the factors examined. The OFT said it was particularly interested to find out the effect of restrictions commonly placed on the number of taxi licences by local authorities. 'If you start restricting supply, potentially that can distort local markets,' it added.

The OFT, which expects to report next summer, is not acting in response to any particular complaint. It is using its new markets and policy initiatives division to carry out a more general analysis of service levels.

The number of licences in issue at any one time is a contentious point for both passengers and drivers. In the Wirral, for instance, taxi drivers fought a plan to end a cap on licence numbers, claiming it would flood the market and damage their livelihoods.

In London, day-to-day licensing of taxis comes under the umbrella of Transport for London, part of the Greater London Authority. There are two types of licence - a green badge that allows unlimited trade within the capital and a yellow one that confines the cab to parts of the suburbs. There are no specific limits on how many cab licences can be issued in London.


The three main local authority unions have threatened to call an all-out one-day strike in London next month unless councils agree to a big increase in London weighting payments, reported the Financial Times (p4).

Unison, the TGWU and GMB unions said yesterday that a date would be announced if the 33 London boroughsfail to table an acceptable offer at talks on 12 September. The unions' joint strike committee said any industrial action would be aimed at hitting the employers rather than the public, by disrupting internal council services and revenue-generating activities such as collecting car parking fees.

However, the TGWU appeared more enthusiastic about strike action than Unison. 'We are hopeful that the employers will make a serious offer on the 12th. But we are very clear that an announcement on strike action will be made if they do not,' said the T&G union.

Unison said it was encouraged by the employers' willingness to meet on 12 September. It said contacts between union negotiators and the employers had been positive.

TGWU officials irritated Unison this week by announcing that the three unions had already agreed to call a one-day strike in mid-September, a claim Unison denied. Unison said negotiations on London weighting had been held up by the Labour-run Association of London Government refusing to discuss the issue until a separate national pay dispute had been settled. The ALG also wanted to wait until reports on weighting by the Greater London Assembly and the Audit Commission had been published.


A teenage girl told yesterday how she saw her boyfriend drown as he tried to rescue a classmate and teacher from a swollen rive during a confidence-building outdoor pursuits course, reported The Daily Telegraph (p6).

Jason Dalton jumped into the water but he was dragged under by a 'whirlpool' and swept to his death.

The teacher, Alun Davies, and pupil David Edwards got into difficulties after flash floods hit the River Sychryd in the Neath Valley, south Wales. Mr Davies had no experience or safety training in outdoor pursuits courses when he took six students on the trip from Ystrad Mynach A-level College, near Caerphilly last August, an inquest in Merthyr Tydfil was told.

Sarah Evans said the water had been calm when Mr Davies and Jason jumped in. However, she became worried when Mr Davies went in again with david Edwards and did not return quickly. She said Jason offered to see if they were all right. The water was flowing faster and it was raining.

Recording a verdict of accidental death, the Glamorgan coroner, Philip Walters, endorsed a recommendation from the jury that only trained supervisors should lead groups into the area.

Mr Davies told the inquest he had neither received safety training nor seen a copy of anu safety procedures before the trip. He said: 'The only safety equipment we had was the 22ft length of blue nylon rope. I didn't have any experience of water conditions or qualifications. I didn't think I needed them. There are no signs saying it is unsafe.'

After the hearing, Jason's mother, Carol Dalton, said the action was wholly avoidable and the family was considering civil action against the college. The Health and Safety Executive was also considering legal action.

South Wales Police investigated the death but the Crown Prosecution Service decided against proceedings.

Caerphilly BC said the college was a corporate body. 'As such it is responsible for its own affairs,' it added.


Newcastle upon Tyne City Council, which banned performances of a Punch and Judy show for promoting domestic violence, has admitted acting too hastily, reported The Times (p10).

It apologised to Derek Carpenter, aka Bo the Clown, for going 'over the top'.

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