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Editorial - This will be the education election

The political debate is about your job, your profession: switching off is not an option

The political debate is about your job, your profession: switching off is not an option

Ah, yes, September. The conference season. Predictable politicians. Predictable speeches. "Deja vu all over again", as that thoughtful philosopher Sam Goldwyn once said. Will anyone beyond sad journalists and obsessive activists pay attention? Will you? Well, you should, because while it may be tempting to watch that must-see episode of Ice Road Truckers, it would be a mistake to switch channels just because a bloke with a dodgy haircut and mistimed gestures is putting you off your dinner. The chances are that once he has done with disembowelling bankers and savaging the opposition he will be talking about you.

The next general election will be the education election. After the economy, education, as ASCL general secretary John Dunford points out (page 43), will dominate the electoral battleground. This is not because a lot separates the parties. On the contrary, when it comes to the big education issues they struggle to sing differently. But for a variety of reasons - sacrosanct soldiers, saintly nurses, and demonic tabloids - education will be the politicians' campaign territory of choice. In which case, it's best to bear in mind three things.

The first is that truth is already a casualty. It suits the opposition to exaggerate problems while the Government whistles a happy tune. Many teachers will struggle to recognise their school in the caricatures - a system in meltdown, pupils running amok, exams not worth the paper they're written on, students who have never been brighter or more dedicated. Teachers will wisely ignore Victor Meldrew and Pollyanna and rely on the evidence before their eyes.

The second is that the status quo is not on offer. Change is inevitable whichever party wins, and for a profession that understandably yearns for a bit of peace and quiet that is going to be difficult. Budgets will be squeezed, pensions will be reviewed, parental expectations - already sky-high - will demand to be met.

The third concerns trust. How far will teachers be trusted to implement change? How far will Westminster trust Cardiff to run more of its educational affairs (page 1)? The profession may not wish to admit it, but would the strides that have undoubtedly been made by schools in the past decade have been achieved if Whitehall hadn't delivered a well-aimed kicking? For those who doubt there has been any improvement, tune into the discussion in Scotland, which opted to do things differently and which is now debating why standards have improved in English schools while theirs seemingly stood still.

It would be too glib, however, to conclude that more of the same will work in the future. The target-driven mania that gripped English ministers may have succeeded in closing the gap with the neighbours, but it will not lead to huge improvements in the future. Constantly telling people what to do without ever trusting them to deliver ultimately infantilises. Ask a teacher. At some point, the profession's paymasters have to understand that the word "professional" means something. Are any of the political parties ready to accept that?

Gerard Kelly, Editor E

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