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Education tops the bill

Both Labour and the Conservatives are putting schools centre-stage as the election countdown begins. Dorothy Lepkowska reports

Education returned to the top of the political agenda this week, with the two main parties promising greater funding and an expansion of successful schools.

With a general election expected next year, the Labour and Conservative leaders were setting out their stalls by highlighting education.

The Prime Minister pledged that successful schools would be expanded to give more places to pupils. He used his monthly media briefing to unveil plans for additional funding and new rules to allow schools to double their capacity.

Michael Howard, the Tory leader, committed his party to spending pound;15 billion a year extra on education, bringing the party's schools spending to pound;67bn.

He made the announcement a day after reshuffling his shadow cabinet. Tim Collins becomes education spokesman, succeeding Tim Yeo who has moved to environment and transport.

Mr Howard dropped the term "pupil passport", renaming the policy that gives parents an entitlement to have their child educated in the state or private school of their choice "the right to choose".

The new phrase is deliberately borrowed from Margaret Thatcher's highly-successful right-to-buy scheme, which allowed council house tenants to buy their properties at knockdown prices.

A parent would only be able to spend their entitlement on private education if fees were the same or less than a state school place. Parents will not be allowed to top-up the entitlement.

He said this would "give the least well-off the dignity that money buys the well-off, the ability to decide for themselves".

Labour's plans for expanding good schools will prove most popular in London where fewer parents get their first choice of school than elsewhere. Mr Blair said he had a "big idea" of a blueprint for the future of education which would "change monolithic services", making them more responsive to people's needs.

"In schools that means freeing the system up, allowing greater innovation, greater diversity and allowing successful schools to expand where they wish to do so," he said.

Mr Howard, who also wants to see the expansion of good schools, said: "The best way of getting a good local school is by having two local schools both wanting to educate your children," he said.

"The struggle parents have to get their child into a good school - moving house, bargaining their way through the admissions rules - will be, over time, a thing of the past."

A report from the Office for Standards in Education said: "The consequences (of popular schools expanding) may make matters worse for the remaining unpopular schools. Further descent into the spiral of decline may be accelerated, as a school becomes less viable."

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