Pressure stays on;Leading Article;Opinion

1st October 1999 at 01:00
THIS week's Labour conference in Bournemouth had the confident feel of a party which has become accustomed to power. But Tony Blair's barnstorming performance on Tuesday showed no sign of relaxing the pressure on schools. Education, said the Prime Minister, is the great liberator of human potential.

David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, followed up his boss's passion with detailed promises: pound;300 million to improve literacy and numeracy and increase the number of teaching assistants; pound;500m to tackle truancy and exclusion, and pound;60m to recruit volunteers to work with disaffected teenagers. He also signalled a tougher approach to parents, raising the fines for condoning truancy, and making court appearances compulsory.

The great strength of the Government's education policy - whether broad-brush rhetoric or detailed announcements - is that it fits into an overall theory about what education is actually for. Blair believes we are moving towards a "knowledge economy", so that if the potential of young people remains unrealised, schools are failing not only those individuals but the country as well. At the same time, this week's announcements acknowledged that teachers cannot do the job in isolation. Many children are not adequately supported by their parents.

Though no doubt gratified by this belated recognition of their difficulties, many teachers remain suspicious of the Government's centralising tendencies. And this is where William Hague, leader of the Opposition, hopes to score. In an exclusive interview with The TES on the eve of the Conservative party conference, Hague unveils his new policy, aimed at freeing up and deregulating the whole system.

What he does not make clear, however, is why. Without a unifying concept, his policies seem piecemeal, aimed simply at penetrating random chinks in Labour's armour. During his visits to schools, Hague has discovered that teachers don't like bureaucracy: so he pledges to reduce bureaucracy. Parents are demanding choice and diversity: he promises to increase diversity. Schools want more freedom: he apparently intends to give them the freedom of being grant-maintained without, it seems, having any idea of what to do with local authorities.

The Conservatives, having thoroughly lost their way, are listening to the grass-roots. But, as Labour discovered during their wilderness years, listening to others is no substitute for a coherent vision generated from within. They started building theirs years before they finally got elected. The Conservatives, in their new-found humility, have made a start. But they've a long way to go.

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