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No time for turning back the clock

I had been lulled into a vague sense that the differences between the two main parties on education were insubstantial when Michael Howard woke me up. The Conservative leader proposed a return to the "golden age" of A-levels when the proportion of students getting an A grade was restricted, instead of the present system which awards an A to anyone who reaches the required standard. Tim Collins, the party's education spokesman, suggested that between 5 and 10 per cent of grades might be As compared with today's 20 per cent.

Leave aside the political barminess of this notion - can you imagine the voters of middle England waking up one August morning to discover that their offspring who last year would have scored As have this year scraped Bs and Cs, particularly those who have been spending pound;10,000 or so a year on fees to secure the result? The startling feature of Mr Howard's announcement, which also included a promise to restore O-level, is what it reveals about his party's mindset on education. We are to re-establish an educational elite whose ranks will be open to the few. The rich will take A-levels in their castles and the poor will take CSEs in secondary moderns at the gate, apart from the few who, like Mr Howard, escape to Llanelli grammar school. Peter Hitchens, a Mail on Sunday columnist, let the cat out of the bag in a piece about the Tomlinson report's proposals for A-levels.

He accused Tomlinson and other education reformers of dismantling "the gentle English class system".

Contrast this with Labour. If its efforts to bridge the gap between the castle and its gates have sometimes been unconvincing and misguided, it has at least begun to change our Victorian attitudes to achievement. And for that we must give thanks for targets.

Targets for the vast majority of pupils to reach an expected standard at 11 mark a sea change in English education. They take us out of our "gentle English class system", which expected a fixed proportion of pupils to fail, into the world of the Pacific Rim countries where teachers assume that every child will make it.

Sadly, ministers have given targets a bad name. They have said silly things about pupils' social circumstance making no difference and they have fussed too much about whether schools, which have already made good progress, have clocked up the right number of percentage points. They seem to have lost sight of their original vision, which was as much about changing expectations as increasing children's scores in maths and English. Yet I suspect that raising expectations is one of the Government's real successes.

Labour is starting from the principle that progress is possible. Ministers believe, as most teachers do, that schools can make a difference and that the majority of children should leave school with a qualification that means something. Only 20 per cent, remember, took O-level. The Conservatives simply want to turn back the clock.

A decade ago, I visited a struggling comprehensive on one of those bleak estates which are more depressing than inner cities. The head was trying every school improvement scheme he could muster. When his back was turned, the teachers were unenthusiastic. "You can't do anything with the kids here. It's their backgrounds," they told me.

If teachers who think like this still exist, they would fit very neatly into Mr Howard's defeatist vision of rationed educational success.

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