Education opinion: stand together for our children's future, says Fred Jarvis

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Last year, more than 500,000 French parents and teachers demonstrated in Paris against their government's proposal to give public money to private schools, and Prime Minister Edouard Balladur backed down. Last February, in London, some 20,000 parents, teachers and governors marched in protest against impending education cuts. John Major was unmoved.

Maybe education here needs something like the boarding of Brent Spar to bring home the need for a clear commitment by whichever party forms the next government to greater investment in our children's and, therefore, our country's future.

The recent experience of the National Education Commission (NEC) certainly suggests that. The commission was an eminent and experienced body and its recommendations were based on impressive research, yet its final report declared: "We can claim to have transformed thinking about some of the fundamentals of education and training in the country, but any satisfaction which we might have taken in these and other matters is outweighed by feelings of dismay at the extent to which action has lagged behind rhetoric."

There was, it said, a "stark contrast" between its 16 major recommendations and the practical response they had received.

Clearly, a government seeking tax cuts in the hope of winning the next election is not likely to commit itself to the steadily rising investment in education urged by the NEC. Instead of plans for increasing investment, we see cuts hitting schools around the country, the near destruction of the youth service and adult education (about which far too little has been said) and enormous pressures on higher education. Plus John Major's ill thought-out and divisive voucher scheme intended to provide nursery education on the cheap.

The OECD has also condemned this country's underfunding of education and the detrimental effects of the Government's reliance on "market forces". Its recent report points out that spending in Britain's private schools is double that in the state sector, exposing the hypocrisy of ministers who, while sending their own children to private schools, tell parents using the state sector that resources aren't all that important.

Of course, more resources will not, alone, secure higher standards. Attitudes, expectations and motivation quality of leadership and management all play a part too. But the issue of funding is absolutely central and those who deny it are deluding themselves and deceiving the public.

Although the present government is, rightly, the target of most of the NEC's and the OECD's strictures, there is, as yet, no guarantee that a Labour government would make good the underfunding that both criticise. Tony Blair says education would be the "passion" of his government, and John Major says he intends to make education the key issue in the run- up to the election, but neither has given an unequivocal undertaking to tackle the underfunding and inadequacy of our education system. Despite improvements in some respects, and certain worthwhile reforms, it still fails to meet the needs of the rising generation, of our society and our economy. This inadequate system is now threatened further, as Gillian Shephard warned in her leaked memorandum to the Cabinet.

We have never had so much lip-service from politicians about the vital importance of education, and so few clear commitments to invest more resources in it. The next election looks more likely to be fought on taxation and tax cuts than on an honest discussion of the state of our public services and the needs of the people.

So it will be up to those who know from first-hand experience of the effects of education's underfunding to put the truth to the electors and press the politicians for commitments. That can be done best by all those organisations and interests which have a stake in education combining forces, as they did so successfully once before in the run-up to a general election.

In 1963, some 70 national organisations united in a campaign to make education a major issue in the impending election. They succeeded, organising two great rallies and more than 100 public meetings around the country. All three party leaders addressed the campaign's representatives.

The joint stand two years ago by the teachers' organisations, backed by parents and governors, over testing and curriculum overload demonstrated how effective a united effort can be. They halted the Government in its tracks and it had to be rescued by Sir Ron Dearing.

The launch this summer by three teachers' organisations with Unison, Case (Campaign for the Advancement of State Education), NAGM and the NCPTA, of the campaign "Funding Our Children's Future" is a valuable initiative on which an even broader campaign could be built. For let there be no doubt, the commitment that needs to be given by the next government is one that only a pooling of the resources by all the forces in education can secure.

If they had all got fully behind the recommendations of the NEC, perhaps it might not have had cause to be so dismayed by the Government's response. The approach of the general election presents an opportunity to make amends.

The writer is a former general secretary of the National Union of Teachers.

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