Editorial: Manifesto messages

4th April 1997 at 01:00
There is only one thing more dispiriting than waiting for education to fight its way to the promised position at the top of the election agenda, and that is seeing what the party manifestos finally have to say on the subject. Not much new, is the answer.

For a message without too much added pain, the most heartwarming comes as usual from the Lib-Dems. The section to turn to is Investment in schools, where there are explicit commitment s to increase funding for books and equipment, to reduce all primary class sizes to 30 at most within five years, to fully fund the Code of Practice for special educational needs, and to invest #163;500 million over five years in repairing crumbling school buildings. Could they pay for everything on the shopping list with a penny on the income tax? If only. Why should it seem crazy to expect a similar minimal commitment from either of the two parties most likely to form the next Government?

Coming back with a bump to the Conservatives, there is much, much more of the same on offer: more tests, more selection, more prescription, more league tables, stiffer gold standards, more chance for parents to vote for more exclusive schools for their own children - a classic case of power without responsibility. It is meaningless for the rhetoric of the manifesto to talk about opening up new opportunities to every child when everything proposed strengthens a market where the dim and the disadvantaged are dispossessed.

The one surprise announcement from Conservative Central Office comes in the new concept of a locally-maintained school. Somewhere between a grant-maintained and a voluntary-aided school in its projected powers, it is hard to discern whether this strange hybrid owes more to compromise or to the lingering wish to destroy the local education authorities.

Every five years at election time, there are Tory manifesto-writers who beat their chests and urge that all schools should be swept out of local authority control. It is a proposition that has always been at odds with the other conviction about parental choice; never more so than now when parental votes for grant-main tained status have dwindled away.

So if opting-out has stalled, this time there is to be no choice. All schools will still be linked firmly to the local education authority which will fund them and monitor standards, but control over staff employment contracts and admissions will go to the schools. They will also acquire charitable status, like independent and grant-maintained schools.

Three main questions are thrown up by this new vision of self-government, and the first is just what benefit heads and governors might expect from accepting the poisoned chalice of employment responsibilities. They and they alone would carry the burden of personnel and financial decisions and of industrial relations, without the help of professional or legal advice from local officers, and they would be the ones to face employment tribunals. The situation may often have been confusing when it was not clear who was in charge on employment issues, but the evidence is that few heads or governors have the training or experience to go it alone.

Local authorities may be grateful to retain a role, if only to be the whipping boy on standards, but they will question what funding is left to them to carry out their monitoring role. As for admissions, though we wait to hear details, the mismatch between places and pupils revealed in the Audit Commission's Trading Places seems bound to get still worse.

In these circumstances, Labour promises to keep what works well and to work relentlessly for higher standards in the interests of all children, not just the selected few, are welcome news. So is the emphasis on standards, rather than structures, though it would be interesting to know how soon a Labour government would legislate to transmute grant-maintained into foundation status - or how far that might differ from locally-maintained.

Labour's new education action zones sound like a positive and collaborative way to target support towards disadvantaged schools and areas, and the first effective counterbalance to market strategies that we have heard for some time. They sound much like the old education priority areas, except that there are no clear promises of extra money. But you could say that about the whole manifesto.

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