Only 1 per cent of the 22,000 interviewees questioned for a British Social Attitudes survey due to be published next week cited increased emphasis on exam results as an effective way of improving standards in schools. The same percentage believed that better school leadership would make a significant difference.
The lack of public enthusiasm for these and several other high-profile areas of government policy is striking, say the authors of the chapter on education in the book accompanying the survey.
"They barely accumulate 5 per cent between them, which is surprising, given the massive publicity accorded to 'superheads'... exam results and school league tables," they say.
Over 40 per cent of interviewees believed smaller class sizes were an effective means of improving standards. Better-quality teachers was cited as an important factor by 17 per cent.
Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, and co-author of the chapter, believes that this parental response demonstrates the incompatibility of government priorities with public opinion.
"They come up with good-sounding concepts, like leadership, but basically parents just want their kids to be in smaller classes," he said. "There's a dissonance between the aspirations of policy 'wonks' and the concerns of parents."
The survey also revealed a decline in support for selection in secondary schools. Selection was opposed by 52 per cent of interviewees, compared with 50 per cent in 1998.
This, the paper concludes, may reflect the current debate over specialist schools. "Parents don't like selection," said Professor Wragg. "But I think Tony Blair is quite pro-selection. He's more in tune with the aspirant middle classes."
The Department for Education and Skills has defended its education priorities.
"Effective, high-quality school leadership is vital for the transformation of education," a spokes-person said.
"Performance tables give parents valuable information on how well schools in their area are performing. The Government is committed to limiting the size of classes for five, six and seven-year-olds to no more than 30."