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Patten back with radical manifesto

An acceleration of the Government's school reforms, a voucher system for parents and the axeing of the Employment Department are among radical suggestions for a future Conservative manifesto made by former education secretary John Patten.

Mr Patten - humiliatingly sacked in last summer's Cabinet reshuffle after a stormy period at the Department for Education - has spent much of his enforced free time composing a book called Things To Come: The Tories in the 21st Century. His theme is that unless the party swiftly rethinks its beliefs and long-term agenda, it will effectively commit "rapid political suicide".

His underlying tenets are familiar: strong family and moral values, choice and diversity, the teaching of nationalism, toughness on crime and a belief that the only reason some education reforms are unpopular so far is that they have not been taken far enough.

In typical Patten style, he is prepared to go further than his successor on Government policy. "The performance of grant-maintained schools has been exceptional," he declares, in contrast to Gillian Shephard's remarks on the achievements of such schools last year. After praising their better-than-average exam results and truancy figures, she added cautiously: "What we can't say yet is that they are doing so because they are GM."

Mr Patten has no such doubts. "If the principle seems right, and the practice effective, why have these benefits not been universally applied? They should be, in the life of the next Parliament, starting first with the country's 4,000 secondary schools and then rapidly moving on to our 20,000 primary schools. " The Government's failure to do this already has led to problems: "In education, we have thus become victims of our own democratic instincts, and the pace of progress has contributed to unfair claims of two-tierism in the provision of schools, making easy targets for opposition attacks."

Another area in which he appears far to the right of his successor is on education vouchers, which he believes should be provided for all parents in parallel with the enforced opting-out of schools.

Losing office appears not to have changed his views on nursery education, which remain lukewarm at best. "The hard question which needs to be asked is, accepting that it may be nice for children, convenient for parents, and have some votes attached, does nursery education improve the life chances, and thus the economic performance, of the children of our country? On this question the jury is still out."

Being out of office has given Mr Patten the freedom to suggest that "in due course" the Department of Employment might be abolished, with its responsibility for training being passed to the DFE.

Excoriating parents who fail to spend 15 minutes a day reading to their children, or who oppose compulsory testing, Mr Patten blames progressive teaching methods for high illiteracy, and returns with gusto to his twin themes that teachers should belong to Royal Colleges, not unions and that training should be done mainly in schools.

One area in which the former Oxford don feels Government reform has gone far enough is the universities. It is not in the national interest, he says, to create any more universities or undergraduate places, but diversity should be encouraged: "We simply do not need extra battalions of BAs in the new century, as much as marching regiments of the rapidly reskilled." .

While the book's opinions range across the big issues of European and economic policy, one of Mr Patten's central arguments covers the area of crime, the family, and community. Through tax and divorce policies, the Government should ensure stable families because otherwise children are at risk of school failure, truancy and either crime or unemployment.

Juvenile crime should be tackled by Criminal Prevention Associations - groups made up of headteachers, youth leaders, chief constables and social workers with representatives of voluntary groups.

Things To Come: The Tories in the 21st Century by John Patten (Sinclair-Stevenson, Pounds 17.99)

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