Conor Ryan: Can Collins sack all those civil servants?

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Michael Howard wants to restore trust in politics. So, his shadow cabinet have drawn up 'timetables for action'.

Michael Howard wants to restore trust in politics. So, his shadow cabinet have drawn up 'timetables for action'. Those who fail to deliver in his office will be sacked. Tim Collins, the shadow education secretary, promises to restore school discipline and scrap university fees in his first week in office, though he admits that delivering school choice may take a bit longer.

Opposition policy-makers lack the civil servants available to ministers to advise on the disadvantages, costs and side-effects of their policies. As a result, the luxury of opposition can too easily become the discomfiture of office. Perhaps all the more so for Mr Collins if he sacks two thirds of his civil servants in his busy first week.

Successful policy makers recognise that serious problems require complex solutions. That means translating the phrases demanded by the pollsters into practical plans. The Tories at least made a stab at this with their student finance policy, which makes the lack of detail in their policies for schools all the more telling.

Before the May 1997 general election, Labour promised to reduce infant class sizes to 30 or below by phasing out assisted places for private education. The change would affect half a million pupils.

It was easier said than done. Early legislation was required. New classrooms had to be built and teachers recruited. Extra statistics had to be collected to monitor progress. There were court challenges from parents who felt their children would lose out. Opposition politicians claimed (wrongly, as it transpired) that the pledge disadvantaged older primary pupils. The class sizes pledge was delivered by 2001. But even then, as pupils enter schools at different times during the year, there is no guarantee that every infant will always be in a class of 30 or fewer - 23,000 infants were in larger classes this January.

However, Labour did have a clear idea of what was involved in delivering its key pledge. No similar thought appears to have gone into the Tories' plans to improve school discipline.

Mr Collins believes the problem can be fixed by scrapping exclusion appeals panels. Even supposing this was the magic solution needed to restore classroom order, it rests on some very bizarre assumptions.

Some 9,290 pupils were expelled permanently in 2002/3. In 1,074 cases, their parents appealed. Just 227 cases were found in the parents' favour. And in only 162 cases was the pupil's reinstatement ordered.

If we are take Mr Collins' party conference claim that a teacher is being assaulted every seven minutes, we must then assume that a remarkably peripatetic band of 162 pupils is responsible for the 9,800 annual assaults this figure implies.

In any case, if there were no independent appeals panels, most of these cases would end up in the courts. This would not only cost schools more, it would be surprising if fewer than a fifth of cases were decided in the excluded pupils' favour.

However, Labour was not judged so much on its class-size record as on its moves to improve primary school literacy. Equally, the Tories' success or otherwise in improving school choice may be more carefully scrutinised than their scrapping of exclusion appeals panels.

Yet, they are found wanting here, too. In January 1997, Labour sent a detailed literacy task force report, with proposals for a daily literacy hour, to every headteacher. Work therefore started on day one in government. There is no Tory equivalent plan on school choice. We are promised extra school places, but given no detail on which capital projects would go as a result or how the new system could guarantee every child a school place.

Of course, no opposition can match the resources of government. But if opposition politicians aspire to be ministers, they must provide the boring detail as well as snappy sound bites. Only then can they really hope to regain the voters' trust.

The writer is co-author of 'Excellence in Education: The Making of Great Schools', published by David Fulton Publishers. He was David Blunkett's political adviser from 1993-2001