Polling booth battle shows education's value to all

23rd April 2010 at 01:00
Political leaders are desperate to prove passion for schooling through their policies - with mixed results

If politics is "the art of swallowing toads without making a face", our wannabe leaders must be feeling pretty sick by now. But it matters who wins the election. Remember that defining Liberal Democrat campaign promise of a penny on income tax to fund education? The fact that it is now dropped says a lot about levels of investment in schools under the Labour government. We've had a golden period of capital spending, massive rises in the number of support staff and even respectable teacher salaries.

The manifesto contents are, fortunately, more interesting than their covers. My A-level art students could have done better than Labour's copy of a 1950s railway poster advertising a holiday in the paddy fields of China. And many a school prospectus design would have been more appealing than the Conservatives' faceless cover resembling an MA thesis but inviting us to join the government.

The last time the Conservatives were in power, the prevailing philosophy was for schools to treat their now local partners as rivals, as in a game of Monopoly, each trying to land on the educational equivalent of Mayfair in the search for funding in those resource-starved times. Since competition ruled, we kept our best ideas to ourselves, just desperate to pass "Go" each year.

Now if we elect David Cameron, we will pass Gove. The cultured commentator from BBC's The Review Show will be our next boss. And in his Big Society everyone will have the chance to set up a school. Just follow the instructions on the Tory tin.

Apparently it works in Sweden. Well, so does Ikea, but if you've tried erecting one of its wardrobes recently, you will know how much pain it involves. So the Tories are on a loser unless they go for the Brits' favourite way of doing things: the fast-food takeaway. That's how most of us would like to get a new school: just ring and ask for one to be sent round, like dialling for pizza.

Seriously, though, this will be transformational. Think of movements such as Steiner and Montessori. Established through charities and funded privately, under the Tories schools could be set up by groups such as these and be state-funded. Our national system will go for good.

Michael Gove has also visited some charter schools in the US and claims it's important to empower parents. If he had done his research properly, he would know that some of these successful schools work precisely because they keep parents and all their problems as far away from the schools as they can. They lock them out, in fact. Because we all know there are no problem children - only problem parents.

If the Tories really want to import ideas from abroad, they might recommend some foreign writers for the literature syllabus, though I would prefer them to leave the curriculum to the pros. Imagine politicians telling brain surgeons what scalpel to use. Well, Gove thinks he is an authority on phonics, so tells us how we will have to teach reading. His aspiration to abolish illiteracy, though, is admirable.

The Lib Dems are believers too: bring them a problem and they'll show you how schools can fix it. Education is one of their four Big Pledges. Their proposed school comparisons, using statistically similar groups, makes a lot of sense. The introduction of Tomlinson-style diplomas to replace GCSE and A-levels will have us all cheering. And the pupil premium is such a strong idea, the other two parties have already magpied it.

Meanwhile, Labour policy rests on solid ground, such as federations to raise standards. The approach is also rooted in Labour's philosophy of the strong supporting the weak and is tried and tested, though still innovative enough to be new, and based on work supported by that other Labour success story, the National College.

I'm pleased that education is at the centre of the political debate. Despite all the toad swallowing, the election outcome matters. Though the best news about this campaign is that education matters even more.

Ray Tarleton Principal, South Dartmoor Community College, Ashburton, Devon.

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