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A shrill note ushers in election Spring

Spring arrives imperceptibly, especially this year when the cold weather has lasted so long. One minute it's winter: there are no leaves on the trees and the flowerbeds are bare. The next, you begin to notice the buds on the trees, and daffodils emerge, apparently from nowhere, to brighten up even Hackney front gardens. Then you hear birds singing in the morning and Whitehall robs you of an hour of your Sunday morning lie-in.

General elections, it seems, creep up on you in the same way. One minute there's a government suffering traditional mid-term blues and the election seems as far off as the next World Cup; the next there is a new shrillness in the voices of politicians. They begin to make mountains out of molehills and you hear whispered rumours that the Tories have bought all the billboard space they can lay their hands on this Autumn. Journalists stop writing about issues and write instead about when the election will be and what will happen if there is a hung Parliament. People on buses start accusing politicians of spending too much time arguing with each other, forgetting that that's precisely what we employ them to do.

No one knows - except possibly John Major - when the election will be but we all know that the campaign has begun. There are only two ways to deal with elections. One is to love them: to lap up every episode of Newsnight, to read acres of print and to deconstruct the election material that comes through the door before putting it in the bin, rather than the other way round. The other is to try to pretend the election is not happening, and fail.

Either way, you need to understand the laws that govern election debate. This is particularly important for those of us who work in education because it is clear that this time education will be an issue with a capital I. This has never happened before. In 1992 education was just about to come to the boil in the campaign when everyone suddenly became very excited about Jennifer's ear. By the way, how is her ear now?

Education was barely debated even in 1987 when the Tories put the most radical educational agenda since the war on their manifesto. We've spent nearly a decade arguing about it since but during the campaign it was submerged beneath the Lawson boom and the Trident programme.

So what are these laws? Well, just as Newton discovered that three laws govern the universe, so three govern elections too. The first is that the extent of debate about a subject is in inverse proportion to its importance.

Thus, the poll tax, which contributed to the downfall of the century's most powerful Prime Minister in 1990, was barely mentioned in the 1987 campaign and Europe, which has almost brought John Major down more than once, was a non-issue in 1992.

This time election debate about education will no doubt focus on the vexed question of selection while the more important questions, such as changing the anti-educational culture, creating a climate in which schools can improve themselves and raising the status of the profession may not feature at all. The moral of all this is: if you want to find out what will dominate affairs after the election read the small print in the manifestos.

The second law is that you need to know what they agree about, but they won't tell you. The logic of elections is that they focus on the areas of disagreement but in terms of what happens after an election the areas of agreement are often more important. For example, Sir Ron Dearing's review of higher education funding has huge implications for young people, families and, of course, teachers. It will be a mega-issue after 1997, perhaps the biggest of all in this already busy decade, but it will barely warrant a mention in the election campaign. Indeed, it was set up with all-party agreement with the express purpose of taking it off the election menu.

This is not necessarily a bad thing but it is important to remember if you want to keep a sense of perspective as the electoral temperature rises. One might misquote John Lennon and say that elections are what happens while politicians are busy making other plans.

Third, and applying particularly to education so far as I see, there is the law that is an essential guide to controversy at all times, not just election times. Only false modesty prevents me from calling it Barber's Law.

It is simply this: the fiercer the controversy, the falser the dichotomy. Is class size the central issue of teaching quality? Fierce debate, false dichotomy. Are skills more important than content in the curriculum? Fierce debate, false dichotomy. Is education about process or product? Fierce debate, false dichotomy. Real books or phonics? Fierce debate, false dichotomy. You can extend this list almost endlessly.

Nine years ago I had the dubious privilege of being Labour candidate in Michael Heseltine's constituency of Henley-on-Thames. I won't claim that it went down to the wire. I attended dozens of public meetings and joined in all the controversies. I even pretended to mind about Sunday trading. I doubt whether the cogency, or otherwise, of my arguments swung a single vote. Elections, I began to realise, are governed by other laws.

I think this dawned on me before the campaign was over because I can distinctly remember deciding to start reading out the latest score in the Test Match over the PA in the campaign van. It would be an exaggeration to say that this was the turning point in the campaign but it may have been the reason why there was a bigger-than-average swing to Labour in Henley that year.

On the other hand, the swing may have been due to the fact that I made a good impression on Labour voters in the constituency and persuaded them both to take the trouble to vote on the big day.

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