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Editorial: A sea-change?

It is part of the election rhetoric that there is little to choose between the political parties when it comes to education. If this were true, there would be something to be said for such stability from the point of view of both Labour and the teachers.

For Tony Blair and his education spokesman David Blunkett, it has been imperative to emphasise classroom standards, with all that implies in terms of testing, inspection, accountability, homework and discipline, and they have left no doubt of their personal belief in such a prescription. If this is now seen as identical to the Tory agenda, then new Labour has been more successful than Neil Kinnock was as education spokesman 17 years ago, when he first said that Labour should be the party that cared about educational standards.

As to the teachers, a future free of excessive classroom change is something that they have been begging for in every survey and conference speech for the past 10 years. This week's poll from the National Union of Teachers is the latest revealing widespread dissatisfaction throughout the teaching force, with constant change, administration and disruptive pupils heading the list of complaints. Our own TES focus groups have told a similar story of teachers as victims, required to do as they were told, no matter how often the orders were revised.

But of course this level of unhappiness, which is as potentially damaging to school standards as it is to teachers themselves, cannot be put down simply to the pace of change. Far more important is the direction from which change has come, and the culture of blame that has attached to it. Policy has been dictated from the top down for so long that teachers have become quite unused to responding creatively to consultation.

The single most important way that Labour could open up a clear gap between themselves and the Conservatives, is by enlisting teachers in the enterprise, from the start. The most constructive recent development has been in school improvement projects, and experience shows that they only work when they are rooted in classroom practice, rather than paper tick-lists.

But both sides must play. Labour has shown with its latest literacy project that it is prepared to be frank about failure in its pursuit of school success, but also to use collaboration rather than blame as a tool. Nothing is going to work unless teachers are treated as professionals, but setting up a General Teaching Council won't change anything unless teachers themselves recover their spirit and enthusiasm, and seize back the initiative on standard setting.

Meanwhile, this week's events have highlighted the real policy divisions between the parties. Both the Select Committee report on nursery education and the end-game on the Education Bill remind us that differences still run deep on vouchers and selection, and that a Labour government would not embrace the Conservative version of choice and diversity.

The Select Committee's conclusions on nursery vouchers have reinforced what The TES and other critics have argued from the beginning: they have provided less choice rather than more; they have driven four-year-olds into primary, rather than nursery, classes and dangerously neglected training and buildings. The Labour proposals to integrate education and care, to plan LEA, private and voluntary expansion jointly, and to create training ladders, are what most families have been waiting for. The question now is how soon we can get from vouchers to coherence.

As to the Education Bill, the selection debate shifts from Parliament to the hustings, where it may do less harm. The creeping creation of local hierarchies of grammar and grant-maintained schools has been damaging to more children than it has benefited. It is not clear how long Labour would take to sort out its local networks, but the policy gap here too is fundamental.

What the education service needs from a new government, then, is not a policy that turns everything upside down again, but which will go for improvement in partnership with the profession. Above all, teachers crave a shift in spirit and mood and vocabulary. We may be facing six weeks retreading the old rhetoric, but there is the heady prospect that the whole climate could change.

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