Page last updated at 16:45 GMT, Friday, 9 October 2009 17:45 UK

Education role in election clear

By Mike Baker

classroom scene
The parties' focus was on England, with the UK's devolved education systems

The annual political party conference season is over. The political caravan moves on - next stop the general election.

So what have we learned about the policy battleground for education?

I visited all three major conferences and the profile of education was high, both in the main hall and at the so-called fringe events.

But there was a distinct difference in mood and tone between the gatherings in Bournemouth, Brighton and Manchester.

The Liberal Democrats were somewhat distracted by the internal argument stirred up by their leader's suggestion that their policy of scrapping university tuition fees may no longer be affordable.

Labour were subdued - almost surprised to find themselves still standing - and managed to send out a rather muddled message about future spending on schools.

Finally, the Tories were rather like contestants at an awards ceremony who are almost certain they have won but must await the actual announcement to be sure: confident and anxious in equal measure, talking as if they were already running the education system whilst trying hard not to seem too gleeful about it.

And, partly because of their position in the opinion polls but also because their ideas are still taking shape, it was the Conservatives' policy announcements that drew most attention.

Amazed

Under David Cameron there have been some significant changes of direction. Take university expansion, for example.

Not so long ago, the Tories ridiculed Labour's target of getting 50% of England's young people into university. No longer. They now wholly support expansion.

So dramatic has been this change that I almost had to pinch myself to be sure I was not imagining it when front bencher Nick Gibb told a fringe event that "if 40%, 50% or 60% get to university, then that's good".

I was even more amazed to hear him say that "golf course management is actually a very worthwhile degree to have". Not so long ago, Conservatives were more likely to talk about "Mickey Mouse degrees".

But if the Conservatives have abandoned their past on universities, their recipe for schools still has strong echoes of the Tory rhetoric of the 1980's and Margaret Thatcher's education reforms.

Academy route

Back then, the Education Secretary, Ken Baker, created inner-city specialist technology schools, the City Technology Colleges.

This week, the Shadow Schools secretary, Michael Gove, proposed creating "new technical schools in our major cities" to offer children "hands-on, practical, vocational education".

Back then, Ken Baker encouraged schools to "opt out" of local council control. This week, Mr Gove said every state school would have "the chance to free itself from bureaucratic control" by taking the Academy route.

Back then, Ken Baker wanted the teaching of history to put greater emphasis on hard facts and chronology. This week, Michael Gove promised a curriculum that "teaches the proper narrative of British history, so that every Briton can take pride in this nation".

And the same contradictory forces are present now as in the Thatcher years. Then the Conservatives wanted to set schools free by, in Ken Baker's analogy, devolving power "from the hub to the rim".

But although schools were given new freedoms to manage their own budgets and buildings, they also found themselves increasingly constrained by a national curriculum and national tests set in Whitehall.

Rote learning

Today, Mr Gove talks about freedom for schools and says he will abolish the "regiments of bureaucrats" in quangos like the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency. But he also wants to tell schools how and what to teach.

Mr Gove wants to prescribe how history should be taught and to reform what he calls the "dumbed down" science curriculum. He also wants to introduce new reading tests in primary schools while his schools spokesman wants to bring back "rote learning".

The point is not whether or not these are good policies, but whether it is contradictory to advocate complete freedom for schools whilst insisting on a particular version of what should be taught and tested in them.

The Labour conference revealed little in the way of new policy, with Ed Balls' conference speech focusing on existing policy on discipline in schools.

However, he had made a bigger impact with comments he had made earlier about how Labour could save large amounts of money by keeping down teachers' pay rises, by cutting curriculum advisors' jobs, and - most controversially - by scrapping senior staff posts in schools as a result of school federations.

However - despite this warning of tough spending times ahead - schools will have been relieved when, a few days later, the Prime Minister used his conference speech to promise not merely to protect school spending but to increase it.

Tuition fees

Interestingly, the Conservative Leader, David Cameron, did not take up this challenge by adding schools to his list of areas where spending would be protected from cuts.

Money was also a key issue at the Liberal Democrats, where Nick Clegg threw a spanner in the works right at the start of the conference by questioning whether the flagship policy of scrapping university tuition fees in England and Wales could still be afforded.

This angered many activists who felt the policy to scrap fees was both right and a distinctive vote-winner.

In the end, the Liberal Democrat conference snubbed its leader's suggestion and voted to keep its policy of free tuition for undergraduates and went further by proposing to extend it to part-time students too.

The conference also supported another distinctive, but expensive, policy: cutting infant class sizes to just 15 pupils.

So, education in England looks set to be a key battleground in the general election. The focus will be on where to cut and where to spend more.

And, despite what some cynics say, there are still plenty of differences between the parties in key areas such as tuition fees, exams and tests, class sizes, the curriculum and the way schools are organised.

Mike Baker is a journalist and broadcaster specialising in education



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