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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 March, 2005, 00:34 GMT
Education takes the election stage
By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent

Mike Baker graphic
It is a sure sign that a general election is near when Tony Blair and his education secretary suddenly pop up in a city academy just a short cavalcade drive from Westminster.

That was this week's obligatory photo-call ahead of the launch of the first of Labour's "campaign documents" - or mini-manifestos, if you like - which set out their policy for schools in England.

From now until election day we will be into electioneering: the government and the civil servants take a step back, the Labour Party and the politicians take one forward.

The fact that Labour chose schools policy to be the first of its campaign documents was meant to highlight that education remains the prime minister's top priority.

Fizzing

Labour believes it has a good track record on schools (although, naturally, others disagree) and desperately wants to finish the job.

QUICK GUIDE

The problem is that "finishing the job" is not a very exciting election slogan.

No government, especially one seeking a third term, wants to be seen as having run out of steam. It wants the electorate to think it is fizzing with new ideas.

But Labour's problem is that it had already laid out, in its Five Year Strategy, its detailed plans for the future. These involve extending existing policies such as specialist schools and city academies.

So the party strategists were left desperately casting around for something new to entice media interest and to arouse the public.

They alighted on the line about putting parents into the "driving seat", giving parents more information about their children's school performance so they can negotiate more individualised, small group tuition for them..

School budgets

But even this was not very new. The former Schools Minister, David Miliband, had been making speeches about "personalised" learning for some time before he was moved in the last ministerial reshuffle.

Ruth Kelly and Tony Blair visiting city academy
Ruth Kelly and Tony Blair visited Mossbourne academy
It might, though, be popular with parents and with teachers. Most of the teacher associations welcome "personalised learning" but also want to know how it can be achieved without many more teachers and more money.

The policy document did not address this. However, although his education secretary side-stepped my question at the news conference, Mr Blair was honest enough to answer it.

He acknowledged there "will be a cost" but said it would have to be met from within existing school budgets.

He added that school budgets would continue to increase. However, closer scrutiny of the mini-manifesto showed that Labour has dropped its commitment - made in each of the last two manifestos - to increase education spending as a share of national income.

When I asked Mr Blair about this he said current spending plans meant this was "bound to happen over the next few years". However he still failed to repeat the commitment given in 1997 and 2001.

Slogan

In those last two elections, Labour seemed very fired up about education. In 1997, in particular, they had a massively ambitious programme of reform, backed up by tough, self-imposed targets for delivery.

This time, perhaps inevitably, some of that energy seemed to be lacking. the prime minister seemed distracted and, when asked about primary school standards, had to ask his education secretary to remind him "what are next year's targets?".

The mini-manifesto was also noticeably lighter on targets than previous manifestos, perhaps aware that missed targets have come back to haunt them.

Despite the tendency towards more managerial politics, there are still some very real differences between the major parties on education
The overall slogan is: "Schools forward not back". Labour is concerned that without a third term its hard-fought reforms will be reversed.

This is an understandable concern for them. For, despite the tendency towards more managerial politics, there are still some very real differences between the major parties on education, especially on approaches to exam standards, discipline and behaviour, and admissions.

But will education be a major election issue? At the news conference, Mr Blair looked peeved when the flurry of early questions were not about education at all but about that day's political controversy over cancelled hospital operations.

Education is rarely a life-and-death issue like the NHS. Nor does it arouse the depth of feelings of issues like national security and immigration.

Mr Blair may have wanted to make education his number one priority but it seems unlikely it will dominate the election campaign.

That, of course, does not mean it won't still be a key factor determining the way in which millions of parents, students, teachers and school governors decide to cast their vote.




SEE ALSO:
Heads: parent plans 'patronising'
04 Mar 05 |  Education
Labour offers tailor-made tuition
03 Mar 05 |  UK Election 2005
Labour adjusts test result target
04 Mar 05 |  Education


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