Forget the Labour party's own obsession with grant-maintained schools. Forget the fact that Tony Blair's educational vision - eclipsed on its first outing by the Prime Minister's resignation - was overshadowed this week by the OJ Simpson verdict. Even forget David Blunkett's dramatic victory in his stand-up fight with Roy Hattersley. What really mattered for education at Labour's Brighton conference was the pledge to reduce infant class sizes to below 30.
Though the education debate was one of the longest and most passionate of the conference, the class size issue didn't get much more of a look-in than any of the other attempts by education spokesman David Blunkett and his party leader to carry the debate forward and on to standards. Outside the conference hall, however, there isn't much doubt that it was the party leadership that was hitting all the right buttons with parents and voters with that shrewd class size promise.
This is now the key populist issue in education. Anger over the rapid growth in class sizes is uniting parents, governors and teachers, and fuelled that 10,000-strong march through London at the weekend. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers' latest Harris poll found that 82 per cent of the general public believe that large classess threaten quality, while 89 per cent favour classes under 30. And the National Commission on Education proposed a five-year programme to bring primary classes down to below 30.
It is true that there is little substantial research to prove the value of smaller classes, but there is no brushing away the gut feelings of parents and teachers. And as Professor Peter Mortimore of the London University Institute has pointed out, what research findings we have from the American STAR project suggest that it is in the early years that results are most likely to be improved in substantially smaller classes. So what better place to make a start at meeting parents' and teachers' concerns than with those five, six and seven-year-olds?
It is a promise that will prove expensive and difficult to deliver, but something that a future Labour government could not afford to renege on. It is a matter first of all of the funding, but also of the mechanism for delivery. The National Foundation for Educational Research's estimate of an annual cost of Pounds 60 million is likely to be a minimum figure, and certainly sounds modest for such a key reform, but simply shifting the funds from a phased-out Assisted Places scheme clearly won't meet the bill for the first few years. And that is supposing you can recruit all the primary teachers you need in time, as well as stepping up training. Nor would it wash to transfer funding from elsewhere in the state schooling system. There is wide agreement that primary schools need higher funding, but that can't be done at the expense of secondary comprehensives which are also suffering from cuts and large classes.
It isn't clear yet, either, how the funding for smaller classes would be distributed, targeted, or monitored, or how the new arrangement will square with the powers of heads and governors (however much they might applaud the motives). Apparently the money will be channelled through local education authorities, though not through the revenue support grant, and either earmarked or enforced through parental pressure. Legislation is not expected, but it looks as if there will have to be a lot of hard thinking on changes to the funding mechanisms.
In this connection it would be useful to look at experience in Scotland, where maximum class sizes were fixed some 20 years ago, after a dispute between the teacher unions and their local authority employers. Still rigidly adhered to as part of the teachers' pay-and-conditions contract, they were introduced without legislation but with the blessing of the Government, and funding comes through the Scottish Office block grant. Here the maximum class size is 33, with agreed variations, but in practice classes are inevitably often much smaller, with the local authorities putting in extra money.
The result can be expensive, which is one reason why per capita spending in Scottish schools is substantially higher than in England. It is also the reason why Scottish Labour leaders have been moving in the opposite direction to Tony Blair, and pleading for greater flexibility on class size, a request which the teachers adamantly refuse.
Certainly the smaller classes in Scotland have led to happier teachers and parents, and arguably to higher standards too, and the essential ingredients there have been partnership and goodwill, rather than compulsion. Such concepts are out of fashion in England now, of course, but it looks as if a Labour government will have to incorporate them into its pressure-plus-support thinking if the class-size promise is to be fulfilled. And fulfilled it must be for, as David Blunkett said, it is an essential first step.