The challenge facing Labour
OFFICIAL statistics this week reveal the uphill struggle that the Government faces to convince the electorate that education is its top priority.
Department for Education and Employment statistics underline the scale of the recruitment crisis, and point to deteriorating pupil:teacher ratios in secondary schools.
The good news for ministers is that pupil:teacher ratios in primary schools are improving for the third year running in England and for the second in Wales. In English primaries, they are now 23.3:1 and in Wales, 21.9:1.
However, pupil:teacher ratios in secondaries are at their worst for 15 years.
The DFEE's statistical tables show that pupil:teacher ratios in secondary schools this year are 17.2:1. Four years ago they were 16.4:1.
Almost 8 per cent of classes in secondaries in England and Wales have more than 30 pupils.
This coincides with an increase in the number of pupils switching to the private sector - up 2.6 per cent from 549,129 to 563,402, with girls accounting for virtually all of the increase.
The figures, drawn mainly from the database of teacher records, also highlight the problems for women teachers seeking promotion and show that they have failed to make any real inroads into secondary headship.
Appointments of female secondary heads have been static over the pas year. Despite there being more women than men in secondaries, they hold 1,200 headships compared to men's 3,100.
Having a career break in either primary or secondary schools still appears to be disastrous for women teachers' promotion prospects.
The tables show that almost 13,000 people quit the profession in 1998-99 - an increase of more than 2,000 on the previous year - while the number of part-timers who left during the same period rose by 1,000.
The tables disclose that there were more vacancies for primary than secondary in January - 1,445 compared with 1,287. Both were up on 1999.
However, a DFEE survey of secondary schools last month estimated there were 1,000 vacancies. Schools are being propped up by supply teachers - numbers are up from 10,600 in 1985 to 17,200 this year.
The figures also provide conclusive proof of the recruitment difficulties in teacher training. The only subjects where there is no shortage of trainees are history, art and PE.
Recruitment analyst John Howson, visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University, predicted: "It will be summer 2002 before things get better - - assuming this year's recruitment is better than last year's."
Labour will no doubt defend its record by pointing to improved test and exam results, the success of the primary literacy and numeracy strategies and will argue that it is giving more money directly to schools.