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Sir Claus says Labour might be better

Prince Charles's adviser lambasts Government's record. Susan Young reports.

An emergency programme to repair Britain's primary schools is just one of the crisis measures needed to improve the country's education system after years of putting politics before children, according to Prince Charles's education adviser.

Sir Claus Moser, the founder of the independent National Commission on Education, this week launched a devastating attack on Government education policies and for the first time suggested that a Labour administration might do a better job for the nation's children.

"What is depressing is that in some key respects many of today's children are no better off than their predecessors 20 years ago," he told an audience at the Royal Society of Arts in London.

Although he acknowledged that some improvements had been made since he made his 1990 speech detailing the failings of the British education system - some as a result of the National Commission's subsequent work - he found much more which gave cause for concern, mainly because achievements still lagged far behind those in Europe, let alone the Pacific rim.

He said: "Policy making has remained piecemeal...Educational research has been minimised so that many key decision and views, such as on class size or teaching methods, are based on quite flimsy evidence. Above all, education remains as much a political football as ever.

"Just take the Prime Minister's recent foray into grammar schools, generally aimed, as The Times puts it, 'to widen the divide between the two parties on education.' With the under-achievers in mind, I am dismayed by such an approach, not to mention outbursts from right-wing think tanks and the policy unit at Number 10, evidently considering the possibility of introducing vouchers all round and possibly lowering the school leaving age to 14 and other such retrograde steps. It is all about politics, not about children. Labour policy statements are freer of political dogma, except in relation to selective schooling, and I do sense a willingness to accept common ground where it makes educational sense."

Illiteracy remained "a serious and indeed disgraceful problem". Children spent their lives in "appalling" school conditions, while "poor school rooms, playgrounds, libraries and of course inadequate lessons are commonplace, as Mr Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, keeps reminding us. A sad comment on years of governmental priorities."

Sir Claus said there were three crisis priorities for the next Government: nursery education, primary schools and the teaching profession. He described the Government's nursery vouchers scheme, which started this week, as "a hotch-potch which in my view is little better than nothing... The voucher system should be scrapped and a phased funded programme of local government provision and appropriate teacher training should be launched. LEAs should be the lead agencies. The start should be made in disadvantaged areas, with an aim to achieve universal provision within the hoped-for lifetime of the next Government. There is no higher or more obvious priority."

In primary schools, Sir Claus called for a "crisis audit" throughout the country on which would be based an emergency programme to improve facilities. A new Government should reverse the current situation whereby the greater share of attention and per capita funding goes to secondary schools. Class sizes were also vital, particularly for the first two years. "In these circumstances, it is disingenuous that Government and its obedient quangos time and again throw doubt on the evidence as being inconclusive. . . Moreover, if Government and the Office for Standards in Education claim that the evidence is inconclusive, why have they not launched careful research, which would not be that hard. We cannot be guided by prejudice."

Outlining ways in which the quality of teachers could be improved, Sir Claus suggested that Chris Woodhead could have a major impact, simply by taking "a less provocative stance."

"No profession can expect to attain or retain high motivation, let alone attract good recruits, if it is constantly run down in public. . . I wish to see a total change in public attitude, led by the way politicians, and especially the Government, talks about teachers. And it is unhelpful, to say the least, when the chief inspector continues - in a spirit of political correctness - to blame teachers so vividly for the failings in our education. He may be right that some 15,000 teachers are so inadequate as to be sackable, but this less than 4 per cent hardly characterises a profession. A less provocative stance from Ofsted's lead could achieve wonders.

"The tone should be positive and appreciative of the miserable conditions, not to forget excessive bureaucracy, in which many teachers work."

Sir Claus said education was vital, not only to improve the country's labour force but also for its bearing on severe social problems such as violence and drug-taking, and the transmission of values.

"This brings to mind recent discussions about moral values, in which the running was made by Chris Woodhead and Mr Nicholas Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. At times it found this a mixture of the depressing and ludicrous, especially when there was talk about setting up a new national forum to set down moral values and when Mr Tate took up the theme of cultural values, urging on us the importance of differentiating between Schubert as high and good culture, as opposed to pop music with opposite values."

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