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Empty, yet full of embarrassment

Susan Young tested standards in the Commons debate on education.

It was not the most auspicious start to a parliamentary debate on what is widely declared to be the most important issue in education. Standards.

For a start, both sides denied instigating it. "I'm sure Ministers have better things to do on a Friday morning," sniffed a Department for Education source. The researcher in shadow education secretary David Blunkett's office was equally equivocal. "Not us," he said. So important was the issue felt to be, moreover, that Education Secretary Gillian Shephard was elsewhere, so it was left to her sardonic sidekick Eric Forth to open the debate.

Political honour demanded that Labour follow suit. So Mr Blunkett took his guide dog Lucy off to charm the electorate in Dudley West - shortly to be followed by Eric Forth, who presumably had the engine running on his getaway car in those anxious moments before junior minister Robin Squire arrived to fill the Tory front-bench breach.

Such are the curious conventions of such debates - where MPs are referred to by constituency, not name - that poor Mr Squire appeared to have open beside him a Commons' Know Your Enemy guide, with mugshots, names and constituencies helpfully juxtaposed. He didn't trip; others did.

Adding insult to injury, the Speakers were both deputies, at no time were there more than a dozen MPs on either side. Still, it made for plenty of room, with token Lib Dem Don Foster lolling in a corner, and Eric Forth putting his feet up on the Dispatch table.

The nation's pupils would at least be pleased to learn the MPs had all done their homework, with The TES quoted on at least six occasions. But the suspicion remained - particularly with the debate's emphasis on GM schools - that it had been called to exploit any Labour discomfiture over leader Tony Blair's choice of school for his son and Mr Blunkett's recent favourable pronouncements on league tables of the value-added variety.

Mr Forth's opening lines appeared to have been written with the metaphorical wooden spoon in mind, dwelling on the "increasing political agreement".

But like Tom playing with Jerry, he did not pounce at once, listing at length the standard-raising achievements of the past 15 years - from the national curriculum through testing and GM schools to special needs before casually dropping a question about Islington (the borough spurned by Tony Blair) into the debate almost 30 minutes after its start, and then another on Labour's league table position.

Peter Kilfoyle, delivering his first front-bench speech for Labour that morning, behaved impeccably. It was left to Don Foster to point out slyly that Mr Forth's past boss had described value-added tables - an option now being explored - as "obfuscating" the issue not a year ago.

Mr Forth's speech stayed roughly within the brief, as did Mr Kilfoyle's, which travelled along the lines that if the Government was so keen on standards, how could it justify the Budget's education cuts, diminishing school dinners, rising class sizes and numbers of exclusions, plus inequitable funding?

Labour's Dennis Skinner, the so-called "Beast of Bolsover", enlivened the first moments of Mr Forth's speech by yelling "Waste of time" every time he mentioned testing.

More puzzling was the speech from Tory Harry Greenway, who shouts words and phrases such as "blatantly flouted" and "therefore". Standards were well on the periphery as the former headteacher meandered around the ski slopes and stables of school trips he had known, musing on the technique for persuading girls to wear hard hats.

And every few minutes, someone on the Tory benches asked after Labour's policy on GM schools.

One of Mr Kilfoyle's replies, for the record, went thus: "What the Labour party is against is the divisiveness of consecutive Conservative policies which set out small groups to the disadvantage of the majority. GM schools (have) preferential funding and a lack of local democratic accountability. We have never suggested that parents should not send their children to GM schools. "

The problem with the whole debate is that people tend not to argue about educational standards and that on some aspects Labour and the Tories appear closer than either would care to admit. But not on others.

It was left to Estelle Morris, Labour education whip and one to watch, to close the debate by remarking: "The real debate is not whether educational standards have risen - they have - but whether they have risen enough and across the board."

If the intention of the debate was to embarrass Labour, it failed miserably. But the empty state of the Commons should have embarrassed both sides.

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