It won't win the standards battle

24th July 1998 at 01:00
The opposition parties take ministers to task over claims that Scottish education will receive an extra Pounds 1.3 billion under the Comprehensive Spending Review

It would be irresponsible for any politician to engage in wholehearted criticism of the Chancellor's recent announcement of an increase in the education budget, irresponsible because extra cash in any aspect of public spending is always welcome news for those who seek to provide effective and efficient services with what will always be scarce resources. Conservatives should not be in the business of opposing such increases.

What we are in the business of doing is ensuring that the public is properly informed about such changes to public expenditure and that the money is well spent. In the first instance, the so-called Pounds 19 billion extra cash for the UK as a whole is more like Pounds 8 billion once the fine print is read, and over the lifetime of this Parliament will not represent any increase in the percentage share of national wealth spent on education.

On the second point, a target met in terms of public spending does not necessarily guarantee that the services on offer are of a better quality. While some of Labour's initiatives within schools such as assistants in primary classrooms can be given a cautious welcome, there is still a strong case being made by the teaching professions for increased salaries.

The Government must not be allowed to ignore the fact that the single biggest obstacle to improving teaching standards is low morale.

It is a situation brought about by the fact that teachers see their pay being eroded in relation to inflation (something which might well get worse if the Chancellor's recent deal is judged to be too profligate) and in relation to other professional groups.

Low morale is also caused by the constant string of initiatives which are handed down from "on high" without consultation. Increasing workloads which have accompanied Higher Still have not helped.

Higher standards in schools will come about only if teachers and pupils feel valued in the work they do and only if they can overcome the present frustrations about filling in endless bits of paper to satisfy the ever increasing and sometimes unnecessary demands of those who control the education departments.

They will come about if there is a genuine vision about education where the very best spirit of the Dearing and Garrick commissions are taken on board and where the the Chancellor's handouts are not totally revoked by the ineptitude of the Government's handling of the most important parts of education policy, namely improving the qualitative manner in which education is provided for the nation's young people.

The debacle over student fees does not provide any confidence whatsoever that the Government really understands what constitutes "raising standards".

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