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The New Year's gift we need

WILL a general election in 2001 be good or bad for education? Spring is widely tipped for both the ballot and the start of the next five years in the Blair Government's odyssey. But of course, neither are cast-iron certainties. Technically at least, the election does not have to take place until April 2002. And Tony Blair could still lose the huge majority which swept him to power on a tide of euphoria in 1997. True, Labour seems to retain a commanding lead in the opinion polls. But last autumn's petrol crisis showed how volatile the consumerist electorate has become and how quickly such a lead could evaporate. William Hague's only realistic hope - and Tony Blair's worst nightmare - must be not that the Conservatives will win the election but that Labour will somehow contrive to lose it.

Labour stole most of the Tories' clothes when it came to education. Mr Hague's free schools idea may be a useful means of distinguishing between the parties and keeping up the morale of the party faithful. But there is little sign of it being an effective vote-winner. And in the unlikely event that Prime Minister Hague is ever called upon to put the policy into practice he will find it no easier now than Kenneth Baker and John Patten did in previous Conservative governments. Meanwhile, he may suffer credibility problems with promises to reduce taxes while maintaining increased spending on education.

Extra cash for schools now and in the future is Labour's great white hope, along with a certain amount of feel-good being generated around measurable improvements in standards. For once a party may be promising stability - or at least more of the same - rather than radical change. In that sense,then, the election bodes well for schools and education authorities. It has not only prompted the Chancellor's long-sought largesse but also promises a stream of congratulatory headlines about how well teachers are achieving targets and reducing the numbers of poor lessons witnessed by inspectors. Teachers may have to put up with politicians claiming a certain amount of credit for their hard work but it will be better than being criticised. And the money will be handy.

Things could get even better, given that education could also become the source of a petrol-style meltdown. There is a very serious possibility that as the nation prepares to go to the polls, more and more of its children will be sent home for lack of teachers in the classroom. A rash of classroom closures in those photogenic and media-friendly urban centres where teachers are hardest to find and keep is what Blair and Blunkett must look forward to least in the New Year.

Does this signal the urgent need for a generous pay settlement? Or at least a significant rise in the London weighting? Ministers naturally point to their pound;2,000 threshold payments to damp down such expectations. But as Department for Education and Employment figures show, the areas with the greatest staffing shortages stand to benefit least from the pound;2,000 threshold payments - presumably because fewer teachers remaining in those areas have clocked up the requisite nine scale points. What schools (and the Government) need urgently is better basic pay to tempt more trained teachers back to the profession and to induce more graduates to sign up for training. A headline-grabbing pay boost may be just what's called for. Happy New Year.

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