Anything you can do, I can do better," seems to be the primary education mantra of the three main political parties. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are trying to out-do each other on issues such as early years provision, class sizes and funding, while Conservatives and Labour compete for the toughest line on basic skills. The election was called for June 7 as this magazine was going to press, and the parties seemed set to stick to these policies through the campaign.
Now that the Government has taken the wind out of the Lib Dem sails by promising nursery education for all three-year-olds, the Lib Dems say they are aiming for quality early years teaching. They have proposed 1,000 early years specialist teachers who will forge links between nurseries and infant schools, and they say they will fund in-service training for nursery nurses and playgroup workers.
On class size, the Lib Dems have pledged an average of 25 for all five to 11-year-olds, with flexibility for popular schools and those in rural areas, plus a classroom assistant for every key stage 1 class. Labour also wants to reduce junior class sizes, but plans to achieve this by recruiting 20,000 more classroom assistants; the Green Paper, "Building on Success", refers to improving pupil-adult rather than pupil-teacher ratios. Extra classroom assistants will also help to reduce teachers' workload, say Labour, while the Lib Dems are guaranteeing two hours' non-contact time a week for primary teachers.
Meanwhile, Labour and the Conservatives both pledge their support for basic skills. The Government has set higher targets for key stage 2 SATs for 2004; in English and maths, 85 per cent of 11-year-olds should achieve the standard level 4, and 35 per cent should attain level 5.
The Conservatives say they will keep two hours' daily literacy and numeracy for primary pupils; children who do not achieve the required stadards will be exempt from the national curriculum. The Tories will also publish league tables of key stage 1 SATs results, plus expanded, value-added league tables for the other key stages.
Conversely, both the larger parties are also trying to prove how flexible they can be on the national curriculum. The Tories are calling for a simplified national curriculum and organised sport in primaries, to "boost school ethos and instil a sense of team spirit." Labour says every child must receive a rounded education, including extracurricular activities and access to sport, the arts and citizenship programmes.
If Labour wins a second term, 300 primaries in the most deprived areas of the country will receive cash for sports and arts facilities, while 5,000 primary schools will take part in programmes organised by a network of 1,000 sports co-ordinators. There will also be specialist primary teachers for music, art, drama and sport, who will initially work in disadvantaged areas.
Labour is the only party to promise extra support for underachieving pupils, particularly those from ethnic minorities, targeting pound;150 million over the next three years to raise their attainment.
The Tories are continuing their vendetta against education authorities; under a Conservative government, all schools would be directly funded and local education authorities would retain responsibility only for special educational needs and the education welfare service. Other uniquely Tory policies include giving schools the power to ensure school uniform is worn, assisted places for gifted children and support for the establishment of privately-owned schools funded by tax payers.
How will party policies be funded? Apart from promising an extra pound;540 for every pupil, the Conservatives still had little to say on this issue. Labour will continue to target cash towards the areas it wants to improve. The Lib Dems are sticking to their plan to boost funds by putting an extra penny on the basic rate of income tax.