Conservatives: Tests key to rising standards

The Conservatives are producing an election manifesto that promises higher standards in schools by imposing new tests and taking a tough stance against local education authorities.

In the battle with Labour on measures to improve education, the Prime Minister announced this week that the next Conservative administration would give parents a guarantee of standards.

In addition to league tables at seven, 11, 14 and 16, the Conservatives are planning to change the marking of tests so children get percentage scores, rather than the current system of achieving levels of attainment.

John Major told the Conservative local government conference: "The first pillar will be tests. We'll publish the results so that parents can see how their children are progressing and teachers can discover how much their pupils have learnt. And we'll change the way tests are marked, so that children get scores out of 100."

The Conservatives are also promising to target poorly-performing Labour local authorities. Mr Major is promising that the 20 education authorities with the worst education results would be examined "in turn" by the Office for Standards in Education. Those that failed to improve, would be taken over, he said.

There are to be tougher measures against teachers. Mr Major is suggesting that teachers who fail to achieve national standards being developed by the Teacher Training Agency could be removed from the profession.

The Government is keen to capitalise on the nursery vouchers which have been sent to parents of four-year-olds, but the final draft of the manifesto is unlikely to promise an extension of vouchers to primary or secondary education.

According to Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, the emphasis will be on providing choice for parents. That commitment is likely to be measures to encourage grant-maintained schools, greater freedom for schools to introduce selection or specialisation and the promise of grammar schools in areas where parents want them.

Such a strategy allows the Conservatives to accuse Labour of denying choice with its promise to abolish assisted places in independent schools and its block on any further moves to selection.

As part of the pre-election skirmishes, the Conservatives have re-launched their plan to extend the assisted places scheme to prep schools. However, 40 of 118 schools selected by ministers will not be able to provide places unless the Education Bill currently in the Lords becomes law.

At a sparsely-attended press conference at Conservative Central Office, Mrs Shephard rejected Labour's claim that money from the Assisted Places Scheme would be better spent on reducing the size of infant classes.

She cited reports from the chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, that the quality of teaching is a more important factor in raising standards than class size.

Labour, she said, remained opposed to grammar schools. The recent assurances given by Tony Blair during the Wirral by-election were at odds with statements made by David Blunkett, the party's education spokesman, and Graham Lane, chair of education at the Labour-controlled Local Government Association.

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