Page last updated at 20:50 GMT, Thursday, 26 June 2008 21:50 UK

Cameron's Britain: Education

By James Westhead
Education correspondent, BBC News

David Cameron on school bus
Are the Conservatives on board with Mr Cameron's education plans?

A political party's education plans can be more revealing than any other policy area. After all, how we educate our children is how we see our future. So what is the Conservatives' vision?

The most striking feature is how much the vision for education in England has changed under David Cameron, stealing many of New Labour's clothes.

The Tories' education spokesman Michael Gove is unabashed. "We would carry on where Tony Blair left off," he claims, doubtless leaving many traditional Tories wincing.

Indeed on key issues, the new Conservatives have shifted dramatically.

They no longer oppose university tuition fees, they no longer promise more selection or "a grammar school in every town" (the policy was axed in 1997) and have dropped plans for the state to subsidise children who go to private schools.

Instead they are pro-comprehensive, pro-social justice and talk about helping disadvantaged children in deprived inner-cities.

Devolution has also changed the landscape; the Westminster government no longer calls the educational shots in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

But is it just talk or does their promise of change add up to anything new?

Competition and choice

Take the Tories' central big idea - to create a free market within state education, removing what they see as the bureaucratic dead hand of local authority control.

Essentially this is adding booster rockets to Labour's existing policy of academies - state schools with private involvement.

Instead, anyone - charities, private companies or groups of parents - would be encouraged to set up their own state-funded school with fewer restrictions and the freedom to innovate.

David Cameron and schoolboys
Under Tory plans, these children's parents could run their school

Government money would follow the pupil - there would be more for disadvantaged children, parents would have more choice, competition between schools would drive up standards, failing schools would simply close through lack of pupils.

A key argument for this reform is that it would benefit the poor more than the rich - who can already choose a good school by going private or moving house.

So will it work? The idea has been tried elsewhere - with "free schools" in Sweden and "charter schools" in the United States - with some positive results.

But unlike in Sweden and the US, the Conservatives' schools won't be allowed to make a profit.

Accountable downwards

Critics wonder if, without the profit motive, there will be enough charities or philanthropic millionaires rushing to open new schools.

And will enough parents really want to run their children's school rather than simply drop them off at the gate?

However the free schools policy brings to life Mr Cameron's vision of what he refers to as a "post-bureaucratic age" - the idea of cutting back the role of the state and giving more power to parents - which runs through his thinking.

The current government's obsession with top-down targets, he believes, stifles public services.

The Conservative leader has calculated that there is wider dissatisfaction over education

The concept is that instead of being accountable upwards, schools would be more accountable downwards to the parents.

For many schools battered by Whitehall target-setting and central directives, this might prove attractive.

For instance, one Conservative idea is to significantly slim down the national curriculum.

Over the years, they argue, it has grown overloaded with expectations of schools and left too little autonomy for teachers to decide what is best.

However, so far the Tories are unwilling to reveal which elements of the curriculum they think we could do without.

Genuinely meritocratic

Other key areas of Tory policy have shifted too, including in higher education.

They used to oppose Tony Blair's university tuition fees - a position reversed under David Cameron.

Also gone is a limit on the numbers going to university. Instead they now support continued expansion - although without any Labour-style targets.

However, as the Conservatives march onwards over New Labour's education territory, they risk leaving their rear flank exposed.

The tricky grammar schools question has already caused problems for the former education spokesman David "Two-Brains" Willetts.

David Willetts
David Willetts took on Tory traditionalists over grammar schools

He was shunted sideways in the July 2007 reshuffle after a bitter row over the party's policy on grammar schools.

Many traditional Tories remain baffled as to how Mr Cameron could pull back from a system they regard as genuinely meritocratic.

He has papered over the cracks by saying existing grammars are safe, but Labour will increasingly try to expose divisions on an issue that arouses strong passions.

Yet the Conservative leader has calculated that there is wider dissatisfaction over education.

His narrative is that Labour's grand promises have not delivered, that ministerial diktat hasn't worked.

The Cameron slogans would be more freedom and diversity for schools and more power and choice for parents.

What is not clear is how much demand there is for parent power - and whether "freeing" schools will deliver the better standards and social justice he promises.

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