Whose hands to trust education to?

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The Independent Online
Just 12 months ago, the number of education policies on which the political parties agreed was still growing. Not any more. The election is coming and all political parties are busy proving that they have distinctive policies on schools to offer voters.

On Saturday, Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, spoke to the National Union of Teachers' conference. Yesterday, it was the turn of Labour's David Blunkett and today the Liberal Democrats' Don Foster will take the podium.

What's on offer?

Selection

The Conservatives want more of it. They have promised a White Paper in June which may give all schools the right to decide their own admissions policies and fulfil the Prime Minister's ambition of a grammar school in every town. At present, most schools' admission policies are decided by local authorities.

Labour wants less of it. There will be no legislation abolishing the remaining 161 grammar schools but parents in each area will be allowed to vote on whether to keep them.

Since around 80 per cent of children will not get into grammar schools, many parents may calculate that they are better off without them.

The Liberal Democrats are also opposed to more selection. They say local authorities should decide what happens to the remaining grammar schools.

Opted-Out Schools

The Conservatives want more of them. There is a battle in the party over whether opting out should be compulsory for all secondary schools or whether schools should just get more control over their budget. At present, parents have to vote for a school to opt out.

This is a tricky issue for Labour since both the party's leader, Tony Blair, and Harriet Harman, health spokeswoman, have children at opted- out schools. Labour would stop financial bribes to such schools and offer them the choice of becoming "foundation" schools which would have some local-authority governors. They would also be required to have fair admissions policies agreed with local authorities.

The Liberal Democrats would go further and bring all opted-out schools back under local-authority control.

Private Schools

The Conservatives are increasing the amount of public money spent in fee-paying schools by doubling the assisted-places scheme which pays for bright children from poor homes to attend fee-paying schools. Children as young as five will become eligible for the scheme for the first time.

Labour would abolish the scheme and spend the money saved on reducing class sizes for the youngest primary school children. The party is looking at ways of opening up more independent schools' facilities to the community.

The Liberal Democrats will consider proposals to abolish the scheme and extend the charitable status enjoyed by private schools to all schools at their autumn conference.

Nursery Education

Agreed by everybody to be a good thing. The Conservatives are promising pounds 1,100 nursery vouchers for the parents of all four-year-olds from next April to be spent in local authority, private or voluntary nurseries or play groups. They say that vouchers will increase the number of places available.

Labour says that vouchers will mean chaos. They promise a "free entitlement" to nursery education for all four-year-olds and, at a later date, for three-year-olds.

The Liberal Democrats, like Labour, oppose vouchers and promise nursery education for three- and four-year-olds. Unlike Labour, however, they have said they will spend pounds 900m to pay for it.

How They Will Pay

The Conservatives hope that private industry and commerce will contribute more. Grant-maintained schools will be able to borrow against their assets. There are plans for all schools to compete with roads and housing for government "challenge" funding, with priority given to those which have raised some money from private sources.

Labour plans a new partnership between private and public finance under which groups of schools would borrow money from financial consortia. They are not promising more money for education until after they have formed a government and seen the state of public finances.

By contrast, the Liberal Democrats say they will spend an extra pounds 2bn on education and, if necessary, put a penny in the pound on income tax to pay for nursery education, better buildings, more books and more support for teachers.

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