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Never mind the ballots

Promises, promises but will any political party actually make a difference, ask Michael Shaw and Jon Slater

Zero tolerance of bad behaviour and failing schools is promised by the newly-elected government.

It will push ahead with plans to increase parental choice, involve the private sector in turning round inner-city schools and offer vocational courses to interest and encourage disaffected teenagers.

The election result was unknown when The TES went to press. But both Labour or the Conservatives were bound to say something like that.

Whoever is elected (and the safe money was on Labour) the new government will face the same main challenges.

The most pressing issue will be ensuring schools are ready for September, when they must provide teachers with planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time. Trouble is also brewing this autumn over the introduction of new payments for senior teachers called teaching and learning payments.

Longer-term challenges include improving discipline and cutting truancy.

All parties have promised to do more to help schools stop students bunking off. Attendance by the majority of pupils has already improved. The problem remains with the 2 per cent of secondary pupils who are responsible for nearly half of unauthorised absences.

Prosecuting parents and on-the-spot fines has helped raise public awareness of truancy, but done little to affect serial offenders.

The new government will also try to improve behaviour and attendance by re-engaging disaffected youngsters through vocational education. But neither Labour nor the Conservatives have fully accepted the proposals designed to ensure parity of esteem between academic and vocational courses set out by Mike Tomlinson in his review of 14-19 education.

Labour's plans for a vocational diploma may reduce students' willingness to mix traditional and work-related studies. Supporters of Tomlinson are pinning their hopes on a promised review in 2008 - or Tony Blair's possible departure later in this parliament.

Involving the private sector in transforming failing secondaries may also prove tricky. A Labour government will face an uphill battle to meet its target of setting up 200 academies by 2010 - a task which would involve obtaining land to build them on, finding private sponsors with more than pound;366 million to spare and overcoming parental objections.

In the unlikely event of a Tory win, ministers would also face problems winning private-sector backing, except it would be for state-funded independent schools.

A less daunting task for the new government will be how to handle the combination of extra funding for education and falling school rolls.

Ministers will face a choice between giving extra money to schools, spending it on early years and post-16 education or holding it back for pet projects.

Primary schools, struggling to implement PPA time and falling rolls, will also be expected to respond to pressure to kick-start improvements in national test scores. A final challenge will be the plans for better child protection through the Children Act and Every Child Matters strategy over the next three years.

* michael.shaw@tes.co.uk

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