Politicians set to dance around May poll

Election year 2005 and as a May poll looms, politicians' promises come thick and fast. The education battleground will focus on toddlers and thugs, with Tony Blair and Michael Howard seeking to do most to promote childcare and school discipline.

But the first major education event will be a White Paper on education, which will set out Labour's stall in more detail and be an important indication of new education secretary Ruth Kelly's approach to the issues.

Attention will focus on Mike Tomlinson's proposals for a 14-19 diploma. Mr Blair has decided that A levels and GCSEs must stay. And, unlike Mr Tomlinson, he is likely to insist that they continue to be marked externally, to avoid an unnecessary battle with the Tories.

There may be rapid progress on less contentious proposals, including key skills and transparent A-level grades. But ministers will frame their response to avoid alienating swing voter parents, even if that upsets the sensibilities of the education world.

At the Easter teaching conferences, ministers will want to woo teachers while appearing strong to the voting viewers at home. In the National Union of Teachers' case, Steve Sinnott, the general secretary, will hope that Ms Kelly will attend. For the past two years Charles Clarke, the former education secretary, snubbed the NUT's Easter invitation.

Election pledges will come under ever-closer scrutiny. The public will have to decide between rival jargon - Labour's "educare" for tots or the Tories'

"turnaround schools" for tearaway teens. And school choice could challenge both parties, as they have to explain how vouchers or specialist status will ensure that every parent gets a preferred place. Ministers will hope that their "personalised learning" vision will appeal, but the idea remains too complex for any pledge card. The Tories and Liberal Democrats will hope that their plans to scrap fees will win them the student vote, which traditionally goes to Labour. But they will face questions over higher education funding - and, in the Tories' case, the extent of the graduates'

higher bills.

If Labour wins in May, as the polls suggest, it will be business as usual at the Department for Education and Skills (which has already absorbed substantial staffing cuts).

Should Ruth Kelly be promoted again, David Miliband will be the favourite to succeed her as education secretary.

But if the polls are wrong, and the Tories win, not only would many more civil servants face the chop, so would many quangos. And the Tories'

minister-in-waiting Tim Collins would have more than a busy first week in office.

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