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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 May 2007, 19:07 GMT 20:07 UK
Cameron's classroom takes shape
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

David Cameron on a school bus
Where does David Cameron want to take the school bus?

The Conservatives' dispute over grammar schools is still rumbling - with the resignation of Graham Brady from the front benches.

But whether the rumbling is the noise of ongoing battle or else the digestive sounds of a policy being reluctantly swallowed remains uncertain.

Because if Tory backbenchers are to accept the symbolic ditching of support for grammars, they'll want to know what the party is going to support instead.

So far, party leader David Cameron and education spokesperson David Willetts have reserved their most enthusiastic support for the city academy programme, launched by the outgoing prime minister, Tony Blair.

And Mr Cameron, slipstreaming into an "heir to Blair" position, has made a virtue of being a bigger supporter of academies than the Labour leader in waiting, Gordon Brown.

But if public services become an election battleground, the Conservatives, in Westminster and the country, are going to want to see an education policy that is more distinctively their own.

The party's policy review is still in the making - but so far the mood music on education from the Tories has been much more about evolution than revolution.

Parent power

Mr Cameron has promised to make it easier for parents and community groups to set up their own schools - using the example of charter schools in the United States.

Cameron in classroom
Early in his leadership Cameron distanced himself from grammars

This is already New Labour orthodoxy - and only last week, the Department for Education and Skills announced its backing for similar "parent power" ideals.

And the Cameron Conservatives are in favour of setting by ability to stretch the more able pupils, supporters of traditional "phonics" for reading - and against "experimental" teaching methods.

Nothing there to scare the horses. And one of the ironies of the argument over grammar schools has been that rather than announce a shake-up - the proposal from Mr Cameron means that nothing would change. Westminster might be disturbed, but no parent or pupil faces upheaval.

Existing grammars would remain in place, academies would continue as planned and there would be no additional selection by ability. Rather than proposing change, it is an underwriting of the status quo.

What is different about Tory policy is the absence of ideological baggage - such as previous Tory support for school voucher schemes, devolving full admissions control to individual schools and the extended use of the private sector.

'Debating society'

This isn't likely to be accidental. Because while these might have got a cheer from the ideologues, they never exactly captured the imagination of the voting public.

Cameron in school
Improving school discipline has been set out as a priority

In the run up to the last general election, senior Tories admitted that the flagship "pupil passport" policy had baffled voters, who thought that this voucher scheme was about sending children overseas. And the concept of vouchers was somehow seen as something to do with school meals rather than funding.

In the education debate, that gave the appearance that it was the Labour government which was centre stage, talking about standards in mainstream schools, while the Conservatives were engaged in ideological skirmishing.

And from the outset, David Cameron has been keen to get his party into the mainstream - rather than becoming a "right-wing debating society".

Almost as soon as becoming leader he quietly ditched three former Tory education policies. He distanced himself from grammars, he tacitly accepted that tuition fees would remain and backed the growth in student numbers.

Supply and demand

So what will come next?

Mr Cameron has expressed a strong personal commitment to state education - and his challenge will be to find an innovative and plausible way to show how he will improve it.

Staffroom with David Cameron
Can the Conservatives win over the staff room voters?

He has set out his territory - saying it will be about the tens of thousands of mainstream schools, rather than a relative handful of grammars.

In this he neatly echoes Tony Blair's stance in opposition, when he kicked his own party's obsessions with grammar and independent schools into the long grass - and focused instead on the basics of class sizes and reading skills.

But what will Mr Cameron change? The early soundings have been about increasing the number of desirable school places. Rather than fiddling with elaborate admissions systems for oversubscribed schools, Mr Cameron has spoken of the need for an increase in the supply of places.

This is about easing the squeeze, rather than re-organising the queue.

These could be the extra places in schools set up by parents - but in the past, there have been few signs of parents willing or able to found schools which are unlikely to be built before their own children can take advantage.

Mr Willetts says the Tories would "use the academy programme far more ambitiously to tackle supply side problems".

Rationing places

In either case, creating more places and spare capacity would mean spending more money, with implications for public spending plans.

Cameron in school crowd
The next stage of unveiling school policy will mean tougher choices

Once the party gets into the nuts and bolts of planning these extra places, it will also raise other questions. Last week, Mr Willetts talked about how school intakes could help social and racial integration. But how do you balance such social control against the demands for parental choice?

If there are extra places created in the school system, how are these going to be made to be seen as desirable?

There are already hundreds of thousands of surplus places in England's schools - up to 700,000 a couple of years ago. But that hasn't made the pressure for places in the "best" schools any less intense.

The rationing mentality - that the state school system only has a limited number of desirable places to be fought over by parents' wiles and wallets - is deeply rooted.

The other schools policy so far put forward by Mr Cameron is to improve discipline. This has always been a popular aspiration - with parents and teachers deeply concerned by bad behaviour in the classroom.

But there have been so many promises and crackdowns and zero-tolerances over discipline that it remains to be seen whether voters really think that politicians of any party can deliver on changing behaviour.

Mr Cameron says it has to be the ambition for his party to stop "splashing around in the shallow end of the educational debate". And his challenge will be to stay afloat when he sails into the deeper water ahead.

Tory quits post over grammars row
29 May 07 |  UK Politics
Cameron attacks grammar 'fantasy'
21 May 07 |  UK Politics
Q&A: What are grammar schools?
16 May 07 |  Education

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