Editorial - More unites the parties than divides them

16th April 2010 at 01:00
Election campaign necessitates a fight, but on a whole raft of issues consensus reigns

Last week the Prime Minister in this newspaper declared that education was "a key battleground". And indeed it is. But before we are distracted by the fiery debates and partisan feuding, now that the parties have published their manifestos perhaps we should consider what they agree on. It suits each to pretend there is clear blue water between them. The truth is that the water is distinctly muddy.

English education is blessed to have as its main party spokesmen three formidable operators. Whatever one's view of their politics, Ed Balls, Michael Gove and David Laws are all articulate, passionate about education and punch way above their weight in their respective parties. Compare them with their colleagues in health: the one who wears mascara, the one they don't let out in public and er, so and so for the Lib Dems. Gratifying though it is for education to have such splendid advocates, they are consumate politicians adept at magnifying divisions and obscuring agreement. The reality is different.

Take league tables - a subject that unites many teachers in shared loathing. Do any of the parties suggest binning them? No. The Lib Dems have floated the idea of having a separate division for schools with challenging intakes, but the principle of using publicly available data to rank institutions remains. What about ditching external tests at key stage 2? The Tories have flirted with moving them to Year 7 and Labour has hinted that it could look at teacher assessment, but essentially, forget it. Academies? They're all for them - the Tories want thousands, Labour is content with hundreds, but who's counting? Admissions? Selection is out, lotteries are too Brighton and we're all comprehensive now.

There are some divisions over funding - but only slivers not chasms. The Tories have been vague, the Lib Dems have pledged a couple of billion for a pupil premium and Labour has promised a small real-terms increase for schools but not education as a whole. All of them have signed up for a pay freeze, the details differ only marginally, and they all have unuttered designs on your unfunded pensions.

As for the curriculum, the Tories believe it should be free from political meddling - once they've told teachers what should be in it. Labour is keen to encourage cross-curricula thinking, if it complies with its primary review. In the brave new Tory world, parents will be allowed to set up their own schools. Labour, in stark contrast, will keep the school but allow parents to chuck out the leadership if they think it isn't up to much.

Granted, there are real philosophical differences - the Tories sense in their gut that the state can be as much of a hindrance as a help, Labour has difficulty conceiving of a solution that doesn't involve government, with the Lib Dems somewhere in between. But education is a battleground because all three have decided to pick a fight. The inconvenient truth is that there is far more agreement over education among the Westminster parties than there is between them and either Cardiff or Edinburgh.

Gerard Kelly, Editor E gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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