Safe in their hands?: How the parties differ on schools and universities

The election manifestos have quite distinct plans for schooling, from a Swedish-style model (Tories) to more academies (Labour). Steve McCormack examines their pledges

Few domestic political issues evoke as much passion as schools – and all the main parties think there are votes to be won, first by meeting parents' desires for their own children's schooling, but also by addressing concerns about the continuing low achievement of pupils from the poorest backgrounds. As Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have devolved powers in education, the policy battle will focus on the English school system.

THE BIG ISSUE

The Conservatives promise a "schools revolution" by allowing individuals, charities, parents and teacher groups to set up what will be called academy schools, which, in line with the Swedish model, will receive state funding according to the numbers of pupils enrolled.

Education spokesman Michael Gove says this is part of the party's wider anti-poverty strategy, and he has pledged to give priority to funding this type of new school in the poorest areas first, creating at least 220,000 new school places. Existing successful state schools, including primaries, will also be able to acquire more independence by turning themselves into academies.

Labour's Schools Secretary Ed Balls questions how the Tories would pay for these Swedish-style schools and claims they would be more likely to benefit middle-class children than those from poorer backgrounds.

A Labour government would continue, and accelerate, the existing academies programme and put more pressure on currently failing schools to sharpen up their act, or be taken over. An expanded programme of one-to-one tuition for the weakest pupils, in primary and secondary schools – one of Labour's guarantees – is also central to the party's strategy to raise standards among poorer pupils.

The Liberal Democrats don't talk about new types of school, but they do, uniquely, promise to find extra money from outside the education budget to pay for improved schooling for poorer children, even those attending schools in relatively wealthy areas. Their spokesman David Laws says that, under this system, all children qualifying for free school meals will have around £2,500 more spent on their education.

How much does it affect you?

If your children find themselves in a new Swedish-style school, they'll be in the vanguard of the Conservatives' experiment. But, certainly in the short term, the majority of schools will continue to be run by the state, and, if recent history is anything to go by, vary widely in performance, regardless of how they're labelled. By no means all academies, for example, have proved a success.

BEHAVIOUR

Labour concedes that behaviour in some schools is still not good enough and says that it will intervene in schools where inspectors say discipline needs improving. Ed Balls brought out new guidance, a day before the election was called, which made it clear that teachers have the power to intervene physically if a pupil is violent or persistently defiant.

The Conservatives promise even greater powers for teachers to deal with violence and disruption in classrooms; they say they'll force parents to take more responsibility for their children's behaviour; and they pledge to end instances of head teachers being over-ruled over exclusions by council officials.

How much does it affect you?

The fact that discipline is already good in plenty of schools, including some in difficult areas, suggests that there are already enough existing powers for schools and teachers to crack down on bad behaviour. What seems to make the difference is a head teacher who devotes time, energy and resources to behaviour issues, and gives support to staff in implementing a consistent set of rules.

WHAT TEACHERS TEACH

The thrust from the Conservatives has a back-to-basics feel. They favour primary teaching based on traditional subjects, a return to secondary science split into its constituent parts of physics, chemistry and biology, and pupils grouped in sets according to ability, something they say will channel more help to those who are struggling. Labour's recent curriculum reforms have been characterised by more theme-based teaching, placing learning in wider contexts, such as a global dimension. There's an emphasis on the acquisition of skills, transferable across several life situations, rather than facts.

How much does it affect you?

In reality, Whitehall-based politicians have less effect on what happens in classrooms than they'd like to think. Schools, and individual teachers, have always exercised a degree of freedom over what they teach and how they teach it. Change in these areas is evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

EXAMS

The Conservatives propose a number of measures they say will make exams more robust. In particular, they'll reduce what's called modularisation, where GCSEs and A-levels are split up into segments, each tested at a separate time: something critics argue causes grade inflation. They'll also allow state schools to put pupils through international GCSEs, widely held to be more demanding. And the Tories will create more transparency by publishing online all exam papers and marking schemes.

Labour's recent exam reforms are still bedding in. They include a new A* grade at A-level, and the new, work-related Diplomas, all due in place by September 2011. The Liberal Democrats would scrap the current Diploma system, and incorporate all existing academic and vocational qualifications into a new General Diploma.

How much does it affect you?

Exam reform can take time to have an effect. And, outside GCSEs and A-levels, schools already vary enormously in what qualification routes they offer.

LEAGUE TABLES

All parties offer tweaks to the system, but none proposes sweeping away tables altogether. Labour will introduce a new, annual School Report Card, which will summarise every school's performance and complement the picture given by the league tables.

The Conservatives say they will publish data in such a way that several types of table can be created, focusing, for example on different categories of pupil. And the Liberal Democrats would re-shape the tables, creating "peer groups" of schools with similar characteristics, so parents can see how their local school compares with others taking children of similar abilities and backgrounds.

How much does it affect you?

Recent decades have seen more and more school performance data published, and no government is going to propose going back on that and withholding information from the public. So, parents with the time and inclination to analyse and compare data will always have raw material to help them assess schools. But word of mouth still plays a powerful part, and school reputations will continue to be shaped by dinner-table conversation and school-gate chatter.

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