Six-stop pledge to destination unknown

18th February 2005 at 00:00
The starting gun was fired for the general election in Gateshead last weekend. Tony Blair's helicopter ride to Labour's spring conference stopped six times en route to unveil the promises that will appear on Labour's 2005 pledge card.

The two education pledges - "Your child achieving more" and "Your child with the best start" - have already been criticised by commentators. "No one could disagree with the pledges," sniffed Peter Riddell in The Times.

"At least most of the original pledges were specific."

Even the back-of-the-card commitments - to modern schools for all, strong discipline, guaranteed post-16 education or training, more childcare for the under-fives and after-school care for the over-fives - lack the precision of the 1997 pledge that no infant would be in a class of more than 30 or the 2001 promise of 10,000 extra teachers.

The original pledges were certainly measurable, but they were also hostages to fortune. In government, I worked with ministers to ensure the class size pledge was delivered through extra teachers and new classes. For the Daily Mail it is now a "failed" pledge. Not because class sizes weren't cut - 450,000 fewer infants are in large classes today than in 1997 - but because 22,000 infants were found in such classes in January 2005. The pledge is a victim of its own inflexibility for a very boring reason: the temporary annual effect of late admissions. Yet, in some ways, the new pledges could be far more challenging to achieve than the earlier ones - the 2001 promise of 10,000 extra teachers was easily met. Genuinely "modern schools for all" would require far more investment than has already been earmarked for new secondary schools.

And to win a good majority, Labour must also neutralise Tory attacks. The Tory focus on behaviour - and the Office for Standards in Education's recent report of growing school indiscipline - recently led Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, to sideline exclusion policies that were seen as penalising good schools. Next week, she will announce that A-levels and GCSEs will stay. Though ministers are unimpressed by Tomlinson's diploma, this approach also prevents the Tories becoming "A-level defenders". And Ms Kelly will need to regain credibility for Labour's achievements too - not least on turning around failing schools, where Ofsted's report that numbers were rising again dented an otherwise impressive record since 1997.

Yet those suffering withdrawal symptoms because of the absence of precise targets should not despair. Instant relief can be found in the detailed DfES five-year plan published last July. Just don't expect a copy through your letter box.

Conor Ryan was a special adviser to David Blunkett, former education secretary, from 1997 to 2001

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