Major's schools policies `ignore children's needs'

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The Independent Online
John Major has used education as a political football and ignored the needs of children when he introduced nursery vouchers and more school selection, one of the Government's most eminent critics said last night.

Sir Claus Moser, founder of the National Commission on Education, accused the Prime Minister of listening too hard to "outbursts" from right-wing think tanks and the Downing Street policy unit, and the Government of relying on "obedient quangos" to back it up.

In a speech to the Royal Society of Arts in London he praised the Labour Party for avoiding political dogma on education and called for an incoming Labour government to make schools its top priority.

Sir Claus, who set up his commission after his calls for a Royal Commission on Education were rejected by the Government in 1990, is one of Britain's most influential commentators on the subject.

He also attacked the Government's "piecemeal" attempts to put political distance between itself and Labour by planning to open more grammar schools.

"Education remains as much a political football as ever. I am dismayed by such an approach, not to mention the outbursts from right-wing think tanks and the policy unit at No 10. It is all about politics, not about children. Labour policy statements are freer of political dogma," he said.

The nursery voucher scheme which was launched this week had been hijacked by political advisers, he said, resulting in a programme which would help middle-class parents rather than those in need. The result was a hotchpotch which was little better than nothing.

He criticised the chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, for his attacks on teachers and apparent willingness to support government policies. Mr Woodhead's assertions that class size did not matter were guided by prejudice, he suggested. "It is disingenuous that the Government and its obedient quangos time and again throw doubt on the evidence," he said

Recent debates on moral values were "depressing and ludicrous," he added. Headteachers were only too well aware of the need for morality in schools.

A new Labour government should provide universal nursery education, raise standards in primary schools and boost the image of the teaching profession as a matter of urgency, he said.

"The changes which above all I would like to happen in our educational system are undeniably much more attractive to an incoming Labour government than to the present. It is cheering to have a Leader of the Opposition who has declared that education would be the central passion of his government."

A spokesman for the Department of Education and Employment denied that decisions had been made on a political rather than an educational basis. The voucher scheme and plans for more selection had been launched for totally sound reasons, he added.