Election '97: Theory unlikely to be put into practice

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Indy Politics
After 18 years in power the Conservatives are ready to offer parents a guarantee of educational standards.

It is a bold decision, particularly as the best-known guarantee in the educational world is offered by a Labour-run local authority - Birmingham. Perhaps it is also a sign that, on a growing number of educational issues - school targets, bad teachers, bad schools and bad local authorities - the two main parties are as one.

The Birmingham guarantee, however, is different. It does involve agreeing targets for schools but the authority promises adequate funding in return. There is no hint that any of the Conservatives' education proposals will cost money, though more tests and league tables undoubtedly will.

From teachers there was relief that the manifesto contains no new shocks. That is a victory for Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, who has fought off demands from her right wing for compulsory opting out for all secondary schools, and even the abolition of local education authorities.

Of course, if the proposed changes to schools actually happened, the educational landscape would be transformed. Every town would have a grammar school if parents wanted one. A fifth of the 4,500 secondary schools would have become specialist schools for arts, technology, modern languages or sport - 900 instead of the present 231. All schools would become more like church schools with control over their own admissions policies and, possibly, their own assets.

But most of it won't happen because the cornerstone of these proposals is parental choice, and parents will not choose in the way the Conservatives expect. Grant-maintained schools which have been at the heart of the party's policy since 1988 have not proved popular: there are just over 1,000 out of 24,000 schools.

Plans for new grammar schools are unlikely to fare much better as recent polls show that support for them is waning among parents. The popularity of specialist schools is, as yet, unknown but it is questionable whether many parents will be convinced that children as young as 11 should be channelled by aptitude.

For teachers, the most controversial suggestion is that their performance should be assessed by their pupils' exam and test results. Payment by results was tried, briefly, at the end of the last century; for most of the time since, it has been ridiculed.