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Joined-up thinking best in the end;Opinion

I DON'T KNOW what Lady Thatcher's televised approval did for Wee Willie, but it made my blood run tepid. It would be kinder not to draw attention to education policies which are still all over the place. Surely the Opposition leader's "common-sense" promise to set both schools and the parent-market free is mutually exclusive? And, beyond the grant-maintained connection, what became of the curriculum and quality control in Kenneth Baker's once-great Education Reform Act? I hope no one is going to suggest that "standards" can be left to the market.

I agree that the triple e-word didn't figure strongly in Labour's conference speeches either, but the hidden agenda may be more telling. "We've only just begun" was the Chancellor's keynote message for Bournemouth. You may still be overstretched and underpaid, after two-plus years of Labour government, but all children's potential will be fulfilled in the longer term. Twenty-year goals; 10-year programmes; class-size and literacy targets for 2002. Prudence before spending.

The interesting question is whether the top-down pressure - on children from cot to college, and on teachers from training to stress-counselling - is to be long-term, too. Will David Blunkett relax a little once his primary targets have been met, or just shift the focus to secondary schools?

The half-way point between election manifestos is a salutary time to take the long view. I remember asking at the time that Kenneth Baker introduced his 1988 Act how soon the national curriculum would raise standards. Pause for merry laughter. Sometime after 2000. Ten years on, the first cohort of five-year olds to embark on Key Stage 1 will soon be taking their GCSEs. Their results might tell a clearer story if the Conservative Government hadn't looked for instant pay-offs, lost its long-term nerve, and moved the goalposts so often.

Meanwhile, the noisy last stand of grant-maintained schools created under that same Act provided an illuminating counterpoint to the national poverty debate, which re-opened just before the conference season. The Government might have committed itself to wipe out child poverty within 20 years but what was it doing, asked the doubters, to deconstruct those local market hierarchies which Kenneth Baker began, and which make the struggle so much harder for those at the bottom of the heap?

There could be at least three ways to improve life chances in the most struggling estates: to unlock Gordon Brown's virtual pound;12 billion war chest; to await the long-term effects of social inclusion and inner-city projects; or to unpick the local pecking order of selective and semi-selective schools which tends to dump all the social victims into one basket. Or all three.

Some GM voices picked that moment to turn these arguments on their head. They were the ones who needed more money, now that they faced the same cash levels as their neighbours. Some might think they had been let down gently but obviously they hadn't saved much from those double-funding years. But asking parents for cash isn't their only answer; they want money from the poorest.

Too much of the money which should have been theirs was being aimed at education action zones and disadvantaged pupils, complained Pauline Latham, who chairs the new Foundation and Voluntary Aided Schools Association. Her solution was to shut schools with social problems rather than throw money at them, a logical extension of the Tories' market philosophy.

It didn't happen last time round, because social problems don't disappear if you shut down a school, they spread themselves around. And it takes more than market forces - or setting schools free - to pick up the pieces. Joined-up policies look more convincing in the long run.

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