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Different lines of thinking

Geraldine Hackett talks to two educational gurus from either side of the political divide

The key difference between the two parties, says Professor Skidelsky, who sat on the committee that drew up the Conservatives' manifesto on education, is that the Tories believe competition between schools will serve to lever up standards. The manifesto commitment to give schools freedom over admission policies is designed to to promote a greater variety of types of school.

"The assumption is that if parents do not like what they are being offered, they can take their custom elsewhere," he says.

The reforms being planned would allow grant-maintained schools to introduce 50 per cent selection and all schools could apply to the Education and Employment Secretary to become grammars.

Hence a grammar school system could be recreated. "We are not talking about going back to the 11-plus, but the changes would lead to the break-up of the comprehensive system," he says.

The gain from a more diverse range of schools is that parents could choose institutions more fitted to the aptitudes and talents of their children. "There is no reason why parents should not shop around for schools when they shop around for a house," he says.

Professor Skidelsky accepts that such changes would lead to a hierarchy of schools, but insists that does not have to be detrimental to the system. The ranking of schools would not be set in stone. "It is already clear from the performance tables that schools do change position in response to competition. "

In addition, proposals to make schools legal entitities would remove them from the control of local authorities. The Conservatives intend to create an internal market in education that mirrors the changes that have been implemented in the health service. The intention is that a future Conservative government would give schools control of their budgets and their future development. Local authorities would become the purchasers of education from schools and undertake a number of regulatory functions.

In other areas, Professor Skidelsky, chairman of the Social Market Foundation think tank, believes there is little conflict between the two parties. Labour, he says, now accepts the role of a national curriculum and testing in raising standards in schools.

David Reynolds is professor of education at Newcastle University and an influential figure on the left who helped formulate Labour's manifesto ideas. He believes Labour's priorities will be dealing with underachievement, and that the focus in education would shift from secondaries to primaries.

"Labour has understood the importance of laying the foundations at an early age," he says. The party would aim to bring all children up to a particular standard in an effort to deal with the long tail of underachievement.

The Conservatives' concern, he says, has been with the education of the able child, hence the desire to create specialist secondaries and grammars. The manifesto sets out the intention to put pressure on schools by setting targets, but there will also be support, particularly in disadvantaged areas.

"The emphasis will be on primary, rather than secondary, to ensure every child manages the hurdles," he says. Labour would not rely on competition between schools to improve standards. There are plans for a standards and effectiveness unit within the Department for Education and Employment that would work with schools and direct them to curriculum materials.

Professor Reynolds says there will be a distinct cultural change. One wing of the Conservatives has been concerned with maintaining elitism and refusing to countenance any change in A-levels.

"There is a sense in which Labour cares about education for all and throughout their lifetime," he says.

Local authorities will be expected to take a more interventionist role in improving schools and will be required to draw up development plans.

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