Lib Dems entice the uncertain voters

18th April 1997 at 01:00
With just less than two weeks to go till polling day, Susan Young reports on how The TES focus groups' anxiety about funding and class sizes are attracting teachers towards the policies of the party that promises higher taxes

Pollsters say Labour has the teachers' vote. But exclusive research for The TES suggests there is a battle going on to capture their hearts and minds that the Liberal Democrats are winning.

Three-quarters of the teachers in our sample who have switched allegiances this year have been lost to Labour, with the Lib Dems picking up two-thirds of those votes. The remainder of the switches went the other way.

Teachers desperately want to oust the Conservatives, but are wavering between the two opposition parties. Labour has the best chance of replacing the Government and is keeping and gaining teachers' votes for that reason. But the staffroom vote now seems to veiw Labour promises as "more of the same" and Lib Dem policies - including the promise to raise the tax rate by a penny to help education - have proved enticing.

Last week, every teacher who had decided to vote Lib Dem cited the party's educational policy as a decisive factor, compared with less than a third of the definite Labour voters. And of the 20 in The TES sample who had already decided their vote, just one was for Conservative and one for the Scottish Nationalist Party; the remainder was almost evenly split between Labour and the Lib Dems.

The TES research was based on questioning focus groups of teachers. It is a qualitative rather than a quantitative exercise, giving details about factors affecting opinions. Before Christmas, our focus groups reported low morale, largely blaming it on the pronouncements of politicians. They said they were disenchanted with teaching in ever-larger classes, and also working in crumbling and underfunded schools. The manifestos they drew up bore a marked resemblance to that of the Lib Dem's, asking for universal class sizes of under 30 children, nursery education, more spending on schools, and immediate steps to raise the profession's standing and morale.

Four months on, class size appears to have become a more important issue to teachers, meriting more than twice the number of mentions by the focus group teachers than in December. Financial resources, including pay, remain the other most important issue.

As far as teachers are concerned, the problem with Labour is its tactics for winning the popular vote - steering clear of frightening Middle England's switchers, many of whom will formerly have voted Conservative. These tactics suggest that many of the Tory education reforms, so disliked by teachers - such as testing and inspection by OFSTED - could be here to stay, while there is no promise of extra money for schools.

Labour's vocabulary of toughness on failing teachers, rigour, vigour and standards is almost identical, too, meaning that the question of teacher status, and the lack of it, may remain unanswered. As one Scottish teacher said: "I haven't really heard anyone say anything about improving teachers' status, which I think is really an essential issue."

The teacher vote is something the parties can afford to ignore, unlike the parental vote. As a Bristol junior teacher explained: "As a parent I can see that you would want the best for your child, so if a party is talking about raising standards, then obviously you will be committed to that. But as a teacher, you can see the difference between how they think that's going to be achieved and how that will be achieved."

A junior school teacher from the High Peak constituency said: "My main problem with the Labour Party's thinking is that it seems to be very much the same as the Tory party's I there doesn't seem to be any real specific action. There's a lot of promises, but I don't think we're going to find the money for their promises. We could just be in for more of the same."

This male teacher's views had changed in four months from being slightly more pro-Labour to being supportive of the Lib Dems. He added: "I think the Lib Dems are at least being honest and saying that any spending in education has got to be paid for by a tax rise, which I think is the only way we're going to go forward with it."

However, there is a mood of optimism. Four months ago, two-thirds of the focus group teachers had not been optimistic about possible improvements in education post-election.

Now, more than half believe the incoming party - providing it is Labour or Lib Dem - would make a difference, although changes may probably not come in the short term.

The teachers in the focus group are more hopeful about the prospect of effective consultation between their profession and government, providing a new party gains control. They are divided, however, over whether Labour or the Lib Dems would be the most likely to undertake constructive consultation.

Two out of three of those interviewed have decided how they are likely to vote, the same proportion as four months ago.

But the majority have altered their minds in the intervening period. Asked to identify important issues, Europe was mentioned by half the sample - a new consideration for many of the teachers.

Education was mentioned by almost everyone. About half were concerned about the health service, and one in three listed job security and unemployment as important issues.

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