Editorial: Off to market?

On the doorsteps it has been a case of hunt-the-education-issue, in spite of those agenda-setting promises from party leaders. In the staffrooms there is still a weary reluctance to dare hope that anything might change after next week's vote. This is a pity, because the philosophical differences between the parties become clearer with each new briefing, and cast new light on policies which become more divergent the more closely you look.

Forget, if you can, that this year's budgets won't get any easier under either a Conservative or Labour government. Hang on to the fact that high standards for pupils and teachers are vital for all our sakes, and that what matters with tests, league tables and inspection is how you use them.

Then look at what those two opposing gurus, Lord Skidelsky and Professor David Reynolds, have to say on page 8 about the market (on the one hand) and underachievement (on the other) to get a fix on what is important for each party. The Skidelsky ideology is that competition is all you need to drive up standards. Reynolds signals the cultural change that a Labour government would bring by shifting priorities towards the crucial early years and targeting effort and resources (see also education action zones, below).

The strongest signal that the Conservatives have set off on the next stage of tearing up the education system as we knew it came with Monday's announcements fleshing out manifesto commitments. There were more details about the Prime Minister's pet scheme for a grammar school in every town, and more information about the strange new hybrid of self-governing but locally-maintained school, which few people in education have dared to take seriously.

It does also seem that the Conservatives may not have been expecting to have the chance to put these two schemes into practice, since they are sketchily worked out and hard to justify in terms of a state-run education service. It is to start with wholly inappropriate that parents of children at a school at any given time should have the right to petition for a change to grammar-school status that would affect both present and future children in the area. The claim that standards in surrounding schools would rise is a slippery one to sustain, and even the grammar school lobby is grumbling that no extra money comes with the new status, which is an interesting commentary on just what factors really lever up standards.

As to locally-maintained schools, you could see them as a logical extension to local management, as Education Secretary Gillian Shephard claims, or as the answer to Labour's foundation schools, or the unleashing of market forces. Whichever, there are some hard questions yet to be answered. Why is the new status to be compulsory, whatever the head, governors and parents may feel about their independence and the LEA? And then there isn't much evidence that most heads want to take on all the responsibilities of employing teachers: pay; industrial relations; negotiating early retirement. Professional support from the local authority could only be bought in if the LEA still had the funding and confidence to supply it.

The most critical questions relate to the Conservative decision to give control of admissions to each individual locally-maintained school, with the LEA left vaguely to "hold the ring", however that might square with the existing "duty to provide" a school place for every child. Mrs Shephard has compared the LEA role with that of UCAS, though she ought to bear in mind that some students never do find a place through the university admissions system, and that many others have to cross the country to find one. But that's the market for you.

Of course we have to remember that Labour hasn't yet solved the admissions conundrum either, in a world where parents still hope for choice against the odds, and it can never be entirely squared with local equity. Nor do we know precisely how Labour will make good its key promise to shift assisted places money into smaller classes in infant schools without radical changes to local funding systems, or how the Lib-Dems, come to that, will target tax proceeds into schools, books and special needs without upsetting local democracy. But what is clear as the campaign nears its end is that the result will make a difference to education.

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