Parties match each other with policies

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The Independent Online
Labour and the Conservatives are stealing each other's educational clothes so rapidly that it is impossible to establish who owns what.

On exam and test targets for schools, testing for five-year-olds and more training for heads, they are as one. Yesterday, Labour's standards paper promised them. Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, has a standards working group looking at targets and has just announced more money to train heads. Earlier this year, John Major promised all five-year-olds would be assessed as soon as new guidelines for the under-fives curriculum were in place.

Both parties want bad teachers reported to heads by school inspectors. Labour, if anything, is more strident than the Conservatives, who have not yet promised to speed up the procedure for getting rid of them.

"Poor teachers cannot, and must not, remain in teaching," the Labour paper says.

Both parties want to close bad schools and the methods that they propose are similar. The Conservatives send in a "hit squad" of education experts who can either close a bad school or sack the head, teachers and governors and help it to improve.

Labour promises "a fresh start" for bad schools, which would be closed down and reopened with a new name, new head and new governors andteachers would be asked to reapply for their jobs: "Pupils in a school that has reached rock bottom do not have the time that it can take for protracted measures to achieve results. It is a positive alternative, therefore, to the Government's hit squad or to a closure."

Even on resources, it is not clear that there would be much more money for education under Labour. Mr Blair says only that the parties have "different priorities" on how the money should be spent. He added that, although the party wanted to make a greater investment in education, that would depend on the state of the economy.

Of course, there are differences between the policies. Labour's qualification for headteachers would be compulsory. It would abolish the assisted-places scheme, which funds private schooling for bright children from poor homes, and use the money to reduce class sizes for the youngest children to 30 or under. Mrs Shephard is sceptical about the effect of class size on standards.

Labour would create a new grade of "advanced-skills teacher" to reward those who wished to stay in the classroom. This would be "a professional pace-setter called on by others because of their teaching expertise".

David Blunkett, the opposition spokesman on education, has stolen a march on Mrs Shephard over homework. The standards paper promises clear guidelines to ensure that primary-school children do half an hour a night and secondary pupils an hour and a half.

School inspection, too, would be different under Labour with local authority inspectors involved alongside members of central teams. There would be more advice after an inspection.

A General Teaching Council to improve the profession's status is proposed and school funding would be reviewed.

What difference would Labour's policies make? Less than Mr Blair and Mr Blunkett would like. Experts agree that target setting, better training for heads and rewards for classroom teachers are all important ways of raising standards.

But the paper's biggest flaw is assuming central government has more power than it does to influence events in the schools.

Ministers cannot sack teachers. Only heads and governors can. Unless the Employment Protection Act is changed - and Labour says it will stay - schools cannot sack teachers more quickly than they do now. Nine months, the figure used in the paper for the time it takes to sack a teacher, is an underestimate. Two years is more realistic.

Setting pupils in different subjects according to ability, which the paper favours, cannot be imposed centrally.

Teaching modern languages in primary schools will be difficult when there is already a shortage of language teachers in secondary schools.

Even where change can be imposed, Labour has to tread warily. Mr Blair talks about pressure on teachers and support for them. It is a tricky balance to achieve. And yesterday there was more evidence of pressure than support.