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It's all a matter of vision

Party leaders have a month to convince the electorate that they have the best insight into the future of schools, report Michael Shaw and Thomas Ogg

The launch of the election campaign had party leaders hurrying to mention schools, and education ministers preparing for battles to keep their seats.

Ruth Kelly, Education Secretary, and Stephen Twigg, school standards minister, are among the ministers most at risk of losing their seats and face a tense month of campaigning.

Ms Kelly would lose her Bolton West seat, which she holds with just 5,518 votes, with a 6.7 per cent swing to the Tories. The Lib Dems took seven council seats from Labour in the 2004 local elections.

Mr Twigg, who famously deprived one-time would-be Tory leader Michael Portillo of his seat in the 1997 election, also has a slim majority of 5,546 in Enfield Southgate, north London.

Tory education secretary Tim Collins is defending a small majority in his Lake District seat of Westmorland and Lonsdale. His majority fell by 1,374 in the 2001 election to 3,147. Last week, he had to make a retraction after a Tory plan to make it a special offence to attack a teacher was found to be infeasible.

Education featured heavily at the start of the campaign with the Prime Minister saying Labour's mission would be "about how we move our education system forward".

Tory leader Michael Howard spoke at greater length and said: "Education is, for me, more than a policy area. It is a passion."

Meanwhile, Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, stressed his party's commitment to reduce class sizes.

The three main parties publish their official manifestos next week, although the vast majority of their policies have already been revealed.

* michael.shaw@tes.co.uk

WHERE THEY STAND ON THE KEY EDUCATION ISSUES

Labour

Discipline: zero-tolerance on bad behaviour and tougher laws to keep knives out of schools. Schools to co-ordinate pupil referral units and share excluded students.

A-levels and GCSEs: keep the exams and set up a mainly vocational diploma.

Alter exams to put more stress on the basics of English and maths.

Primary: Introduce a richer curriculum including an extra two hours of sport each week and foreign languages from the age of seven.

Admissions: encourage popular schools to expand but not permit an increase in numbers at selective schools.

School meals: more investment in school food and new nutritional rules.

Bureaucracy: a "new relationship with schools" aimed at halving the burden of inspections.

Conservative

Discipline: abolish exclusion appeals panels, introduce a teacher protection bill and create binding home-school contracts. Establish "turnaround schools" for up to 24,000 disruptive pupils.

A-levels and GCSEs: introduce a quota for pupils who get top A-level grades. Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector, to re-write the national curriculum.

Primary: give primary teachers freedom to use "traditional" teaching methods and scrap central targets.

Admissions: fund an extra 600,000 school places. Schools allowed to admit pupils in any way they prefer. Low-charging private schools to get state funding.

School meals: Ban junk food from schools and allow only vending machines that stock healthy options.

Bureaucracy: cut teachers' paperwork and abolish the Learning and Skills Council.

Liberal Democrat

Discipline: reform exclusions appeals panels, not abolish them. Change the law to give accused teachers anonymity until charged.

A-levels and GCSEs: in line with the Tomlinson proposals, replace GCSEsA-levels with a diploma. Primary: cut infant-age class sizes to 20 and junior ones to 25. Abolish key stage tests.

Admissions: demand admissions co-ordinated locally.

School meals: restrict junk food advertising on children's TV.

Bureaucracy: scrap the Office for Standards in Education and the Adult Learning Inspectorate.

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