Tories' pounds 8.8m education 'propaganda' attacked

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The Independent Online
WHEN the Conservatives won power in 1979, the Department for Education's publicity budget was just pounds 100,000. Now it is pounds 8.8m, and rising.

Last week, at a cost of pounds 3m, the Parent's Charter was posted to 20 million households, despite the fact that Britain has fewer than five million homes with school-age children.

In 1979, television and radio advertisements about education were unheard of. The department ran its first series of radio ads in 1988-9, at a cost of pounds 40,000, and branched out into television in 1991 and 1992 with a campaign to recruit teachers costing pounds 1.9m.

The expansion of the department's publicity empire has not gone unnoticed. Opposition MPs have protested to the Public Accounts Committee, the National Audit Office, the Advertising Standards Authority and the Parliamentary Ombudsman. Their complaints have not been upheld.

The department has faced repeated charges of wasting public money on Conservative propaganda. Its publicity spending rose sharply before the last two elections.

The most recent complaints concerned a pounds 200,000 series of newspaper advertisements on opting out, which were published this January and February. One ad featured the head of a grant-maintained school extolling the virtues of opting out and claiming that his school was much better off as a result. It did not mention that the benefit gained by early opt-out schools was withdrawn from later ones because of protests.

Although the Advertising Standards Authority did not uphold the complaints, it did comment that 'it would have been helpful' if the DfE had pointed out that such bonuses were no longer available.

Groups opposed to opting out remain furious about the ads, and their protests to the Parliamentary Ombudsman are still awaiting replies. The ads were placed in the Independent, Guardian, Mail on Sunday, Observer, Sunday Times, Times Educational Supplement and Radio Times, which have a combined readership of 20 million. The response rate was 0.01 per cent of that readership - 2,000 requests for information, at a cost of pounds 100 per response.

Far from causing an upsurge in the number of schools opting out, the ads were followed by a slump. The figure fell from 157 in March, April and May 1993 to just 45 in the same period this year. There were just 91 parental ballots, compared with 197 last year, and more than half resulted in 'no' votes compared with fewer than a quarter last year.

Ann Taylor, Labour's education spokeswoman, said exercises such as last week's Parent's Charter added to frustration over crowded classrooms and badly maintained buildings. She also had several calls last week from people living in blocks of flats with no children in them, complaining that piles of charters were lying untouched in the hall.

Margaret Morrissey, spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent- Teacher Associations, said there was too much self-congratulation in the charter and too little information. It contained addresses for independent schools' bodies and for the local government ombudsman, but no suggestions as to how parents could complain to Mr Patten or his department if they were unsatisfied with the education service it ran.

'It isn't a charter where they commit themselves to doing things. If your train is late you can claim your money back and if you have to wait for a hospital appointment you can complain, but this charter promises nothing. If the Government wants a partnership with parents it must do more than just paying lip-service.'

Mrs Morrissey has claimed the useful parts of the charter could be condensed on to one side of an A4 sheet of paper and sent to schools to be photocopied and passed on to parents. This is her alternative charter:

Parents should receive a school report on their children at least once a year.

Every school should produce a prospectus once a year.

(The above points were contained in the Government's Parent's Charter)

All parents should have the right to join a parents' association.

Schools should provide a room where parents can meet, and also talk to teachers about their children's progress.

Schools should send newsletters to parents at least once a term.

Parents' representatives should be given non-voting places on local education committees.

Parents should be guaranteed their first or second choice of school.

Parents should agree to play a greater role in their children's schools, and be given places on governing body sub-committees.

Phone numbers for Mr Patten's office and for his advisers on school transport, special educational needs and appeals should be included in the charter. All parents should be given information on how to demand their rights. Letters to the DfE should receive a full reply within two months.

(Photograph omitted)

Leading article, page 18