After the gamble
It goes without saying that education is not in the forefront of any politician's mind as the leadership contenders strut their stuff, and the rest play the game of commitment, lies and tactical voting. All the same, both the first-round candidates, John Major and John Redwood, see schools and standards as vote-winners with the back-benchers (and presumably the wider electorate), and spent the first rounds of their personal battle this week outbidding each other with manifesto commitments on the subject.
Though John Redwood's promise to maintain funding on essential services like education and health with "good sums of money spent on nurses, doctors and teachers" has been greeted with some scepticism by those who know him (see Nicholas Pyke's report on page 4), it is at least more welcome than a commitment to cuts, and further proof that the Cabinet has been shaken by this year's parent revolt over teacher redundancies and large classes. At the weekend, even Jonathan Aitken, the (current) Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was acknowledging that education spending has to rise in the next Budget round, a sentiment which presumably had the backing of the present Prime Minister. The question is whether that will hold good whoever wins the Conservative leadership.
John Redwood's other pledges can be assessed in light of his track record as Welsh Secretary, when he made little secret of his wish to set the pace in education in pursuit of his own philosophy and ambitions, and made full use of his powers to do so. His proposal to give successful schools extra money to expand has already been launched in Wales; he leapt competitively in before the Department for Education with Pounds 3 million to link all Welsh primary schools to the Internet; and he has cast a cold but necessary eye on the cost-effectiveness of sixth-form funding, a nettle which the DFE has so far failed to grasp. At the least his claims that he can find extra money for areas like schooling by cutting back waste have been tried out in Wales.
And they have goaded the Prime Minister to retaliate by setting out his own education stall, which for the most part consists of recycled goods: nursery vouchers; competitive school sport; more grant-maintained - or possibly charter - schools. Of these, the most likely to happen is nursery vouchers; indeed, the announcement has been imminent for some weeks now and could be postponed until after the leadership issue is settled, whenever that might be.
There is certainly a case for postponement until we know for sure who is Prime Minister. Vouchers were always in the frame largely as John Major's sop to the Right, we know that it was not the Education Secretary's favoured way of extending nursery education to all four-year-olds, but that both Redwood and contender-in-waiting Michael Portillo also back vouchers for almost everything. Michael Heseltine's views are not known.
The issue could drop deeper into the melting pot if the two Johns fail to get a working result next week, and the two Michaels enter the lists for a second round with all their opposing baggage, or even Gillian Shephard herself.
Another area on which there is little Cabinet agreement is A-levels. At present Sir Ron Dearing is engaged on the thankless task of preparing an interim report on post-l6 courses and qualifications with a July deadline and a requirement to work with the Secretaries of State for Employment and Wales as well as Education. While Mrs Shephard has proved receptive to the arguments of those pushing for A-levels to be absorbed into a more coherent and progressive qualifications framework, Messrs Redwood and Portillo remain unreconstructed gold-standard men.
Whatever happens, there is now little doubt that a Cabinet reshuffle is inevitable before the summer recess, and that almost any scenario is possible. Even if John Major hangs on as Prime Minister - and few commentators now believe that he can be undamaged by his gamble - he must fill the Foreign and Welsh posts and whatever flows from that. With any other result we are into crystal-ball gazing. Most of the education world would now be extremely sorry to lose the effective and agreeable Mrs Shephard, who has done so much to restore sane governance after the disaster-prone John Patten, but she may well be on her way up or sideways. All we can do is wait for the next instalment.