All parties agree on priority

21st March 1997 at 00:00
The Conservatives are expected to go into the election campaign claiming Labour is opposed to measures to increase choice and will prevent schools from becoming more selective.

All the main parties view education as a key election battleground. Tony Blair has pledged to make education the central priority of a Labour government. Labour is promising an Education Bill in the first Queen's speech after an election victory requiring secondary school pupils to do at least 90 minutes' homework a day and primary pupils to do 30 minutes' reading.

Both main parties are promising strategies to raise standards and improve basic skills in literacy and numeracy. Only on selection have the Conservatives managed to establish "clear blue water" between them and the Opposition.

The parts of the legislation which will not now become law in this session would have introduced measures to increase the number of grant-maintained grammar schools - the Prime Minister may repeat his commitment to a grammar school in every town - as well as providing greater flexibility to GM schools to admit children on the basis of academic ability.

Originally, the Bill also contained new powers for the Education Secretary to overrule local education authorities putting obstacles in the way of schools wanting to become grammars.

On standards, the Conservatives are pledging more league tables of schools. Mr Major wants to see tables of test results of seven and 14 year-olds, alongside those for 11 and 16-year-olds.

Labour is insisting that it would allow parents to determine whether existing grammars should continue to select on the basis of tests, but it would not allow any further extension of selection.

The thrust of Labour's policy is that resources should be focused on improving schools. The National Literacy Task Force has already set out measures to improve reading with the aim of ensuring that after five years of a Labour government 80 per cent of 11-year-olds would be reading at the appropriate level.

David Blunkett, leader of Labour's education team, wants parents to accept greater responsibility for their children and will amend legislation to require parents to sign home-school agreements.

The more problematic area for Labour will be implementing its policy on grant-maintained schools. Labour is committed to a new category of foundation schools on the lines of existing voluntary-aided schools, which have a degree of independence, but are subject to planning decisions taken by their local education authority.

The party wants to increase the effectiveness of the unit dealing with failing schools within the Department for Education and Employment and give OFSTED a greater role in advising schools. Mr Blair has promised that Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, would retain his post.

The parties will be vying for the pre-school parents' vote. Labour intends to scrap the nursery voucher scheme and replace it with a plan intended to expand the provision for three and four-year-olds.

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