BBC News: Election 2010 BBC News

Page last updated at 15:06 GMT, Monday, 3 May 2010 16:06 UK

Three largest parties clash over education priorities

Ed Balls, Michael Gove and David Laws on where they stand on Sats

The three largest parties have clashed over education funding and standards, classroom discipline and Conservative plans to establish new "free schools".

Schools Secretary Ed Balls told the BBC schools in England had been "transformed" under Labour and would go "backwards" under a Tory government.

Tory counterpart Michael Gove said he would give schools "more freedom" and give head teachers more authority.

Lib Dem David Laws said only his party would put new money into schools.

The parties' respective education spokesmen set out their vision for schools and universities in England in a special education-themed edition of the Daily Politics programme.

'Foundations laid'

Mr Balls said Labour's achievements in education had been significant since 1997 but there was more work to be done.

"We have laid the foundation for the future and narrowed the gap between rich and poor," he said.

Labour's schools policy was based on helping every child fulfil its potential and not just "the privileged few", he argued.

The Conservatives would not match our guarantees on funding or one-to-one tuition
Ed Balls

While Labour would raise the schools budget by more than inflation every year, Mr Balls said the Tories would cut funding by more than £1bn this year.

"The Conservatives would not match our guarantees on funding or one-to-one tuition," he said. "That would set us backwards, not forwards".

Mr Gove acknowledged Conservative governments in the 1980s and 1990s had not "invested enough" in school buildings, blaming this on the general economic difficulties of the time.

However, under Labour, he said there had been a huge amount of money wasted, "worrying" trends in school standards and disciplinary problems affecting more and more schools.

Head teachers should have the right to exclude disruptive pupils and not have their decisions over-turned by external panels, he said.

"The truth is that the teachers do not have the powers they need," he said.

"In education, you can have tougher discipline and higher standards if you vote Conservative."

Mr Laws said there was a growing gulf between the performance of children from disadvantaged and advantaged backgrounds.

It was "absolutely crucial" to help address this by providing £1.5bn of extra funding for schools in poorer areas to reduce class sizes.

"Only the Lib Dems promise, in these difficult times, to put more money into education and take the politics out," he said.

Mr Balls accused the Conservatives of "running down" the work of teachers by claiming that standards had fallen in some areas, saying there were "more good and outstanding schools than ever before".

'Freedom curtailed'

The three men clashed over Conservative plans to allow parents and voluntary organisations to set up new schools within the state sector.

Mr Gove said the "free school" idea had worked in Sweden and was gaining favour in the US.

While Mr Balls had "curtailed" the extra freedom given to academy schools pioneered under Tony Blair, he said the Lib Dems would "deny" schools the freedom they needed to improve standards and widen choice for parents.

Mr Balls said evidence from Sweden was that free schools lowered overall standards while Mr Laws said the plans risked "penalising" existing schools.

On university tuition fees, Mr Laws said his party wanted to phase them out over six years, saying it was "important not to saddle students with debt and put them off going into higher education".

Mr Gove said the Conservatives could not rule out raising the current cap on tuition fees if they were elected.

But he said it was right that none of the parties committed to firm proposals until the details of an independent review were published.

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