Let the Tories free teachers to teach

22nd April 2005, 1:00am
Ruth Lea


Let the Tories free teachers to teach

The education policies of the various parties have been little discussed in the current election campaign, which has so far been dominated by somewhat arcane arguments over "tax and spend".

This is unfortunate - not just because education is of vital importance for the future of this country, but also because there are some very interesting policy ideas coming from the parties, and not least of all from the Conservative party.

These ideas deserve discussion. The (blessedly short) Conservative manifesto shows how far the party's thinking has developed in recent months.

At its heart is the realisation that the current tight, centralised and target-driven control of the education system simply does not work.

It denies heads the ability to make the decisions they believe to be appropriate for their schools. It also leaves teachers with a massive burden of paperwork that saps individual initiative and morale and de-professionalises them.

The Conservatives recognise that all teachers need to be liberated from unnecessary red tape and regulations, and be trusted as professionals - trusted to make the right decisions for their pupils.

Their policies involve the scrapping of targets on schools imposed by the Department for Education and Skills, and giving freedom to heads and governors to run their schools, exercise leadership and allocate their own budgets according to their own priorities.

A second strand of the Conservatives' approach is to tackle discipline problems in schools in which a minority of disruptive and disaffected pupils can, through no fault of the teachers, ruin the education of the majority.

This is not fair on teachers, or on those pupils keen to learn. The Conservatives would promote discipline by giving heads and governors control over admissions and expulsions.

The disruptive few would be given every chance to get their lives back on track in special turnaround schools.

The Conservatives would also introduce policies that would protect teachers from parents who make malicious, unfounded allegations of abuse of pupils against them.

Such allegations undermine the respect that teachers both deserve and require if they are to do their jobs properly. The Conservatives recognise that GCSE and A-level exams have come in for much criticism in recent years, especially for "grade inflation" - from employers and universities.

They also recognise that this can be deeply frustrating and hurtful for the students who have worked hard and their teachers, who have also worked hard.

In order to defuse this situation, the Conservatives have adopted policies that would make the examinations system transparent and accountable.

They would ensure standards are maintained and trustworthy and, most important of all, seek to stop the criticism of the examinations system.

Government funding is a key issue, and here the Conservatives play a very conservative hand. Much is being made of the "Tory spending cuts" by Labour. But two points must be clarified.

First, the cuts are not cuts at all. They represent a fairly modest slowing in the rate of growth of total public spending, which can be feasibly and successfully achieved by cutting out ineffective programmes and bureaucratic waste.

Second, the Conservative spending plans have not merely locked in Labour's spending plans for the key services, including education and health - they have actually enhanced them.

Two final points. The Conservatives plan to give parents the "right to choose" schools for their children. That includes allowing parents to send their children free to any independent school that offers a place - at no more than the cost of a state-funded school.

If this scheme is introduced, and then given freedom to develop, parents would have a greater choice of schools for their children.

Similar schemes operate very successfully in several European countries, including Denmark and the Netherlands.

Successful development of this policy would also enhance the choice of schools for teachers.

Finally, the Conservatives are putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to enhancing vocational education for those school-age students who would enjoy, choose and benefit from a more practical education.

Their vocational education policies include the availability of new grants of pound;1,000 for 14 to 16-year-olds to help pupils who wish to combine GCSEs with vocational study at a wide range of colleges, businesses and other enterprises. They will provide greater incentives for young people who find the current range of options at school too limited.

Ruth Lea is director of the Centre for Policy Studies

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