Passion without the resources is only a dream
It may be that education lacks the "fear factor", as my colleague, Peter Wilby, argued in his column last week. But it does have the potential to sway a lot of votes, so it has been surprising not to see it more prominent. One reason is that the policies of the two main parties are so similar that it is difficult to get up a debate.
New Labour has accepted the main planks of Conservative reform - the national curriculum, testing, performance tables, inspection and financial delegation - and it is really a bit rich to claim in the manifesto that education "has been the Tories' biggest failure". The plans of the parties are also remarkably alike with their foci on literacy and numeracy, standards, targets, teachers and discipline.
But it isn't just a case of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Secondary education could be a battleground. There are huge differences in philosophy and policy. While Labour would create a framework for all maintained schools within local authorities and channel money to them by this route (with profound consequences for grant-maintained schools), the Conservatives would seek to give schools more independence and further reduce the role of LEAs.
Moreover, while Labour supports grouping by ability within comprehensive schools, the Conservatives would like to see more grammar schools. So while Conservatives would allow schools to select on ability and aptitude, Labour rules out further selection and seems content to rely on proximity to the school as the main basis for admission (though it is difficult to square this with the new policy of specialist schools).
Enough to argue about there, you would have thought, but both sides have been curiously ineffective in fighting their corners. It could be that neither is entirely confident in its own position. Labour seems anxious to play down the issue by insisting that it is standards not structures that matter (a stance perhaps not unconnected with the ambiguities in Tony Blair's and Harriet Harman's circumstances). But I wonder also how many Conservatives really share John Major's enthusiasm for, in effect, returning to the 11-plus.
Although policy similarities and confusion on secondary schooling may have reduced the impact of education as an election issue, I suspect an even bigger factor has been the lack of clarity about how it is to be paid for.
Without the money, aspirations and policies are so much pie in the sky.
The annual report of the Department for Education and Employment shows that between 1990 and 1995 government spending on education rose, in real terms, from Pounds 24.8 billion to Pounds 28.3 billion - an increase of 14 per cent. Yet to those in education and those served by education, it does not feel like that. And the reasons are not hard to see. Over that period also, teachers' salaries (which account for nearly 70 per cent of the schools' budget) went up by 19 per cent, further education colleges took 40 per cent more students and higher education an extra 55 per cent. Student support, in fact, increased by 62 per cent.
On the other hand, capital expenditure across education had to be cut by 5.6 per cent.
The message is clear. Substantial extra investment has not been enough to pay for the expansion and changes already made (as Mrs Shephard has admitted). This has led to the widely-felt experiences of deteriorating physical fabric, loss of teachers and lack of resources. Our report on technology due to be published soon, for example, will show that nearly 90 percent of schools are receiving less than is required to teach it as a national curriculum subject.
A key problem for the new government will be not just how to pay for its own education plans, but how to make good the deficiencies of the recent past. It will almost certainly require some bold and difficult decisions, and it is the stuff of serious politics, but it is something the main parties seem to be avoiding for fear of frightening off the voters.
The Conservatives therefore argue (not entirely without justification) that there is room for improvement without extra money. Labour offers some new money, but only at the margins. Phasing out assisted places in independent schools from September 1998, over possibly 13 years (since prep schools are now included), will yield only about Pounds 19 million for redistribution the first year and that amounts to only about Pounds 900 per primary school. The once-off windfall tax on the privatised utilities may be used to get 250,000 young people into training, but the resulting savings from social security will hardly amount to a massive injection into education. Perhaps Labour, like the Conservatives, is putting its faith in economic growth and private finance initiatives.
To their credit the Liberal Democrats have publicly faced up to the costs of education. Their proposal for a penny in the pound on income tax, they say, would generate an extra Pounds 2 billion a year for schools - an increase of about 12.5 per cent. Even this might not be enough but at least they have put the issue before us.
Dreams and passions are all very well but without the resources little can happen. There are still two weeks to go before polling day. Come on, let's try to bring the politicians down to earth and get them to put their - in fact our - money where their mouths are.
Professor Alan Smithers is professor of policy research and director of the centre for education and employment research at Brunel University