Labour's new compact with the electorate;Opinion

8th March 1996 at 00:00
If there is serious disagreement tomorrow (Saturday) when the Labour Party debates its education paper, will the rift lines be those between "new" Labour and "old"? It is not a clear-cut question. Helen Liddell's paper lays emphasis on standards, for teachers as well as pupils. There are echoes of David Blunkett's concerns as education spokesman in England, where new Labour sees the need to tap an electoral seam heavily concerned about schools.

But if the teacher unions and party activists take badly to some of the main proposals in what is still a consultation paper does that mean that the tyranny of established interests is reasserting itself? A sign of the party's difficulty in Scotland was given by the embarrassment of its hierarchy when asked to comment on the school choices made by the leader and Harriet Harman, his frontbench spokeswoman.

The dilemmas which apparently face the party's leading lights in the south and its much wooed supporters hardly apply in Scotland. Temptation to independent education does not grip, say, George Robertson. The shadow Secretary of State has good local authority schools in Central Region where he lives. Opting out is not an option for Scottish parents, the large majority of whom appear to have confidence in the overall standards of public education.

If Mrs Liddell's paper is therefore regarded by some in the party as tilting at windmills, these sceptics need not be set down as reactionary "old" Labour. Teachers who dominate local party executives may see no need to apply a version of English solutions to very different Scottish conditions. Yet although no one expects the details of policy to apply uniformly north and south of the border, the thrust of the argument must be the same for there to be credibility. It would not do for Scottish Labour to be calling for more resources to protect proud standards while in the south the party is siding with parents worried by failing schools. The contrast would not only look bad; it would suggest "wha's like us" complacency.

Officials in the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department will have been subjecting the consultation paper to their own exegesis. How much of this, they will be wondering, are we expected to prepare for if Labour wins the election? They should rest assured that more will be expected from their colleagues dealing with legislation for a Scottish legislature. Mrs Liddell, or whichever of her colleagues gets the Scottish education brief, will hope to set a new climate of trust, but practical expressions of that will be many months, if not years down the road.

Of the proposals themselves, much the most interesting is the notion of a compact with every pupil. Formally setting out to maximise the potential of every five-year-old (or every three and four-year-old?) by guaranteeing a school's contribution is an awesome task. Either the compact would be a token only, or it would go far beyond the idea of pupil profiles, which have been much talked about but never implemented because of the burden on teachers.

Increased resources would have to underpin much of what Labour proposes. Finance is not discussed in the consultation paper: the shadow Chancellor will not tolerate pre-election commitments. But whether the policy of an incoming Government was interpreted as leaning more to "new" Labour or "old", it would be subject to Treasury constraints. Every child is indeed special, but individual attention comes dear.

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