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Poll dents Tory confidence

The Government appears to have lost the battle to convince the electorate that the millions spent on education in recent years have raised standards in schools.

In the run-up to the election, the Conservatives are likely to be dismayed by the findings of the latest Harris poll carried out for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, which suggests that 55 per cent of voters believe standards in education have fallen over the past 17 years. Among parents, the proportion rises to over 60 per cent.

Lack of confidence in the Government's education policy is further reflected in the finding that 65 per cent of voters - rising to 75 per cent among parents - believe standards in Britain are behind those in our major competitors. Only five per cent believe standards are ahead of those in France, Germany and Japan.

The poll emerged as the Government announced plans for a further raft of measures that will allow schools to take a tougher line against disruptive pupils and give greater freedom to opted-out schools to introduce selection.

However, such costly reforms as the introduction of a national curriculum and the regular inspection of schools do not appear to have earned the Government any credit for tackling standards in education.

As well as suggesting that voters believe standards have fallen under this Government, the poll shows Labour has a 14-point lead over the Conservatives as the political party most likely to raise the quality of education.

The only consolation for the Government in the poll findings is a slight narrowing of the gap between the parties following the Conservative party conference. In July, Labour had an 18-point lead over the Conservatives as the party most likely to raise the quality of education.

Most voters believe Labour is the party most likely to invest in education, even though the Liberal Democrats is the only one to have pledged to raise taxes if necessary to increase spending on schools.

Labour has a convincing lead over the Conservatives as the political party most likely to get the most out of teachers and the one most likely to improve job prospects for school-leavers.

The final session of this Parliament will be dominated by the Bill introducing tougher sentences for persistent criminals and an Education Bill containing measures intended to raise standards in education. There is also to be a Firearms Bill that will propose a ban on all semi-automatic handguns and a prohibition on the possession of handguns at home.

Primary schools are to be required to assess the attainment of five-year-olds; all schools are to be required to set targets for improving performance and the Office for Standards in Education is to get powers to inspect local education authorities.

Labour is expected to support measures to deal with indiscipline in schools, but will oppose attempts to increase selection. The Education and Employment Secretary, Gillian Shephard, has promised the reforms will lead to grammar schools in areas where parents want them. Labour's election manifesto will focus on the party's policies to raise standards.

The Government is keen to promote citizenship in schools in the wake of the killing of Philip Lawrence, the London head, and there are likely to be pilot projects over the next two years. Both Labour and Conservative want to see a greater emphasis on morality in schools.

A poll carried out by Mori suggests education and schools is now among the three key issues that concern the electorate, coming behind unemployment and the health service.

This autumn both main political parties will claim the high ground on standards. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers believes the Harris poll confirms that Labour has a virtually unassailable lead on education.

Peter Smith, the ATL's general secretary, said the poll results show the most disillusioned to be those in the 35-44 age range - those most likely to have children in the education system. "What is particularly galling is the obvious effect that the constant denigration of teachers is having," he said.

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