Education is now priority for voters, say pollsters

Labour is seen as the party most likely to raise the quality of schooling, reports Geraldine Hackett.

According to the pollsters, voters are more concerned about education this time than at previous elections. The reasons are likely to be the lessening of the electorate's fears about the economy, as well as the stress politicians are putting on standards in schools.

Labour has traditionally out-scored the Conservatives as the party with the best policies on education, but when voters are asked which party is toughest on standards, the Conservatives are preferred. Labour, however, goes into this campaign 17 points ahead of the Conservatives as the party most likely to raise the quality of education.

That lead may not be consistent in the 60 to 100 seats that will effectively decide the outcome of the election. Voters in the marginals may be more influenced by the detail of the parties' policies on selection or grant-maintained schools where they could have a direct impact on the education provided for their children.

Strategists behind the Conservatives' campaign believe the manifesto's promotion of grammar schools and greater selection in schools will focus voters' attention in areas such as Dover and Deal, which would fall to Labour on a swing of less than 1 per cent.

There are two grammar schools in the constituency and David Shaw, who currently holds the seat, intends to highlight what he perceives as a threat to their future from Labour. He is also claiming the Labour candidate, Gwyn Prosser, has a child at one of the grammars.

However, there may not be a great deal of mileage for the Conservatives in pursuing grammar school scares. There are probably only about 18 to 20 marginals where there are selective schools. The remaining 161 grammars tend to be clustered in areas that are solidly Conservative. Labour can also take comfort from the Wirral South result, where even under the scrutiny that accompanies by-elections, its policy on parental ballots to decide the fate of grammars does not appear to have adversely affected the vote.

In attempting to redeem his promise of a grammar school in every town, the Prime Minister may be able to suggest that the new secondaries that will be required in the South-east could bring selective schools to the marginal seats of Hayes and Harlington, and Basildon. Both areas have an expanding population, and the Conservatives are promising that the Funding Agency for Schools will be able to put forward plans for grammars in all areas, not just those that already have grant-maintained schools.

In theory, the future of the grant-maintained sector could also emerge as a factor in around half of the marginals. A Labour government would put an end to the direct funding of schools from Whitehall and existing grant-maintained schools could opt to become foundation schools with two local authority appointees on their governing bodies.

The problem for the Conservatives is that interest in their flagship policy has declined to such an extent that fewer than 150 schools have opted to become grant-maintained in the last couple of years. The Conservatives would prefer to forget their earlier prediction that most secondary schools would have opted out by the time of this election.

The independent school lobby maintains that Labour's promise to abolish assisted places could have an impact on a substantial number of marginals where there are schools taking pupils from low-income households.

Polling carried out by MORI indicates that voters in the marginals are slightly more concerned about education (60 per cent name it as the issue most likely to influence their vote, compared with 57 per cent across the country), but that may only be a response to the intensive campaigning in those areas.

According to Roger Mortimore, MORI's political analyst, polling is showing education is much higher among voters' priorities than in 1992. Of the most important issues facing Britain, education comes second to the health service, compared to fourth at the last election.

"Education has moved up the list of the issues that worry people, but that does not necessarily mean it will be a major issue at the election; that depends on the voters' perception of whether the parties will be able to make an impact in that area," he says.

Labour may well have the tactical edge over the Conservatives through campaigning on policies which are designed to raise standards and reduce the size of classes, while refusing to fight on the Conservatives' chosen ground of grammars and grant-maintained schools.

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