No sense to hollow pledges

18th May 2001 at 01:00
Unlike Labour, the Conservatives would trust teachers to teach and give them greater control over making decisions for their schools, says shadow education secretary Theresa May.

BEFORE the last election Labour made a great many pledges, but the one that seemed to catch people's attention more than any other was Tony Blair's promise to make "education, education, education" his number one priority.

Four years on, with secondary class sizes having risen to their highest for 25 years, the most serious crisis in teacher recruitment and retention for many years, with teachers leaving the profession in droves, and a lower proportion of national income on average each year being spent on education than under the last Conservative government, that pledge seems very hollow.

Moreover, how many teachers thought that putting education first would mean a constant stream of initiatives, yet more interference from the Government, and more and more bureaucracy - a directive a day since the beginning of last year?

Labour have failed to deliver on their priority for education. We now have a teaching profession in crisis and schools being brought to their knees. The job adverts published in this paper are a grim reminder of the desperate state that many schools are in just trying to fill all their vacancies, let alone ensuring all teachers are of the required calibre.

Without doubt, of all the challenges facing the next government, the most important is the need to raise teacher morale and "re-professionalise" teaching. Without that the downward spiral of teacher shortages - and with it a fall in standards - will continue. For the sake of individuals and of the country, we cannot allow this to continue. We compete in a world economy and to do this effectively we need a well-educated and skilled workforce. But we also need to provide individuals with the knowledge and skills for their life outside the workplace. In addition, standards in education need to improve to ensure every child has the best possible opportunity to develop his or her potential.

To achieve this we need to get rid of the bureaucracy and restrictions imposed by this Labour Government. The time has come for politicians to stand back and trust teachers to get on with the job of teaching children.

The time has come to give our schools the freedom to exercise their responsibilities and to give parents more choice to provide the stimulatio for schools to raise standards.

Our Free Schools policy does just that. It is based on the belief that teachers are professionals, and that heads, governing bodies and the professional education management team of a school are best placed to make decisions for that school. We also want parents to be able to make choices about the education that is right for their child.

We will move to a National Funding Formula, which will enable us to start to even out some of the significant differences in funding between schools in similar areas which have grown up under the present funding system. Every school will be able to reflect the needs of the community it serves. It will receive all of its budget direct and will have the freedom to decide how to spend it to best meet the needs of the school and its pupils. It will be free to buy essential services from any provider - including the local authority - according to the needs of the school.

Each school will be free to determine its own ethos, to set its own admissions policy appropriate to the needs of the community, and to set discipline policy free from exclusion targets or pressure to keep disruptive children in the school. Free Schools will also be able to make the willingness of a parent or pupil to subscribe to a home-school agreement a criterion for admission.

Free Schools will be free to cluster, to federate or to network. Abolition of the surplus places rule will mean they will be free to expand - so meeting more parents' choice for their children.

Teachers will have greater control over the curriculum and greater opportunity to make a difference to the future of their school. Above all, they will be freed from the endless bureaucracy imposed by the Government and local education authorities. No longer will they be treated as branch managers of the state. Trusting teachers will enhance the profession, making it easier to retain and recruit teachers, and hence to turn back the tide of teacher shortages.

Labour's record on education is one of failure to deliver. Their pledges fail to address the real needs of our schools. Conservatives recognise the need for a new understanding between government and teachers. We are ready to deliver a common-sense approach that will enhance the teaching profession, better meet the needs of children, provide for parental choice, increase diversity in the system and raise standards in our schools.

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