Alan Smithers: Why do the political parties have so little to offer us?

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The Independent Online

Am I alone in feeling gloomy about the prospects for education this year? It's not just the cuts. Schools are to be protected to some extent, which of course is very bad news for the universities heavily dependent on public funds. What bothers me more is that an election should be a time for taking stock and making plans, yet the parties have little to offer.

Labour has notched up some important education successes, notably in increasing schools' funding, making it easier to recruit teachers, and improving literacy and numeracy. But a lot has not worked out as hoped. The attempt to drive up standards through targets and league tables has done more for test-taking than education. Social selection is still rife, with unacceptable gaps in school performance. Branding schools as specialist when patently they are not is confusing. But all Labour can manage in its Education Bill is pupil and parent "guarantees", which are either empty rhetoric or a licence for lawyers to print money.

You would have thought that education was an open goal for the Conservatives. But they have been so coy that I thought they were deliberately not saying anything in case their best policies were pinched. But it looks as if they cannot make up their minds whether to free up everything and run the risk of finding themselves funding madrassas, or to specify tightly from the centre and insist that synthetic phonics is the only way to teach reading.

They propose to tackle the league tables, but only to exclude vocational qualifications, expecting all children to attain five good academic GCSEs. The consequences are obvious: either GCSEs will have to be further dumbed down or many more young people will be set up to fail things in which they have not the slightest interest. Meanwhile, what price good ladders from school to work?

The Conservatives are also hinting that they will move tests from the end of primary to the beginning of secondary education while retaining the league tables – as if this will solve anything. The essential problem is that using the same tests to assess pupils and judge schools directs the effort into pushing up scores irrespective of the quality of education. The best way of holding schools to account would be to scrap league tables and ensure really rigorous school inspections. Antony Seldon has put his finger on the change needed: staff the inspection teams with practising teachers on secondment rather than bureaucratised inspectors.

The nearest the Conservatives have come to a big idea is to propose importing the Swedish model of independent schools funded by vouchers. But this looks like a solution in search of a problem. Rather than too little diversity, secondary education in England suffers from too much. The great variety of schools has left it without a coherent shape giving equivalent opportunities for all pupils.

The key to fair access is admissions. The Conservatives believe they can take the heat out of the annual scramble by creating more good schools. But, even assuming the necessary surplus capacity can be afforded, parental choices will never exactly match the places available so there has to be some means of deciding who gets them. None of the parties is willing to grasp this nettle for fear of scaring voters. But without political leadership the covert social selection that we live with now will roll on.

The parties have also been silent about specialist schools. Where is the sense in meaningless labels? Pity the poor children with scientific talent trapped in a sports school without physics teachers, or parents choosing a school for its specialism only to find it adopted the subject because it was weak in it and wanted to improve. The subject labels get in the way of straight thinking about how best to organise education. Either they should be dropped or the schools made genuinely specialist as they are in other countries.

Labour looks a spent force in education, under a Secretary of State who gives the impression of wanting to be elsewhere. Having had 12 years to think afresh the Conservatives should be in the driving seat. But so far they have put before us a soggy mix. Until we have politicians honest and bold enough to tackle the real issues, our education system will have to muddle along. Feeling gloomy is the rational response.

The writer is director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham