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Voters lose faith in reform

PUBLIC confidence in ministers' ability to raise school standards has fallen sharply in the past year, according to the Government's own research.

Disillusionment with the Government is so strong that one in seven people believes that government spending on education has fallen in the past three years, despite Labour's claims of record investment.

The research is a sign of a loss of faith in its policies, reflected in a recent opinion poll which showed that two-thirds of voters' opinion of the Government has worsened in the past three years. The opposition to Tony Blair's hawkish line on Iraq and unease about other public-sector reforms are adding to ministers' problems.

Last year's A-level marking fiasco, missed literacy and numeracy targets for 11-year-olds and Estelle Morris' resignation as education secretary appear to have damaged public perception of Labour's record on school improvement.

There are also concerns about health service reforms. This week Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, faced a Common's committee hostile to his policy of foundation hospitals. These will have greater management freedoms than other hospitals and will be able to raise money from the private sector. More than a hundred MPs have signed a motion saying that foundation hospitals will create a two-tier health service.

Similar worries in education are likely to be highlighted next week when up to 40 MPs will oppose the the Government by voting to ban selection by specialist schools.

It is part of a growing campaign within the party to end selection at age 11 following Education Secretary Charles Clarke's decision to reopen the debate on the future of grammar schools.

Specialist schools can select up to 10 per cent of pupils by aptitude and one in 17 does so.

The Department for Education and Skills-commissioned research was carried out by market research company Taylor Nelson Sofres. More than 3,400 adults in England were questioned in November last year.

One in four adults in England now thinks standards in schools will fall over the next 10 years compared to about a third who think they will improve.

Of those who think that standards will improve, only a third believe the improvement will be down to government initiatives. Twelve months ago almost half thought the Government would improve standards, while teachers are now seen as being more likely to drive improvement.

Eamonn O'Kane, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "Teachers' ability to bring about improvements depends on workload reduction. The Government also needs to look very carefully at the target regime and ask whether that is now stultifying education."

Overall, 60 per cent of adults say primary schools are good or very good but only 43 per cent think the same about secondary schools.

A Department for Education and Skills spokesperson said: "It is important to point out that a majority of those surveyed in the recently-published public-perception study believe education in England will stay the same or improve over the next 10 years.

"There has also been an increase since 2001 in the proportion of the public who believe standards in primary (60 per cent, up from 55 per cent) and secondary (43 per cent up from 40 per cent) education are very good or good."

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