But who will deliver a real choice of schools?: Leading article

`New Labour: old school tie." The Prime Minister's crude and personal attack on Tony Blair is a better guide to the election battle over education than any waffle about "super-schools" which may emerge from today's all- day Cabinet thrash on the Tory manifesto. The Government purports to be concerned with parental choice and standards, but the party's instincts are altogether cruder. In the election campaign we will be presented with Honest John from Brixton, who wants educational opportunity for all, against a Labour leader who enjoyed the benefits of an elite education himself, but who wants to confine them to a hypocritical, middle-class minority.

This plays on some of Labour's more visible inconsistencies. But will it work? We hope not, because it is a debased distraction from the real issues. And we do not believe that it will, because the dissonances in Mr Major's position are too deafening.

First, he hated school himself and left at the age of 15 without an O- level to his name. If he is to use his own humble origins as a model, his manifesto should propose correspondence courses in banking for all.

Secondly, he sent his son and daughter to private schools, which is rather more relevant than where either he or Mr Blair went to school themselves. Mr Blair's choice of school for his sons is controversial only in relation to Labour policy; in relation to responsibility for the state schools used by nine-tenths of the population, Mr Blair and his colleagues are rather better placed to preach about "opportunity for all".

So let us hope that the education debate in this election will not be about motes, beams and intermediate-sized pieces of wood in the eyes of politicians. Unfortunately, today's discussions on the Tory manifesto seem unlikely to take us further forward.

Gillian Shephard's plan for "super schools" is simply an old, unfulfilled Tory pledge dressed up, that popular schools ought to be able to expand. No one has an ideological objection to this, but there are practical difficulties in allocating more money to successful schools and taking it away from sinking ones.

Her other suggestion for the manifesto - the present draft is a rather thin document, if this is any guide - is to get round the problem of parents who persistently vote against schools opting out of local council control. She wants to copy Labour's plan for "foundation" schools, a half- way house between autonomy and direct rule by education authorities.

This should prompt us to ask more fundamental questions. The truth is that both the Conservatives and Labour are incoherent on the subject of parental choice. The Tories have little to say to the parents of children who are likely to be rejected in a more selective system, while Labour has a strangled message for parents whose children currently enjoy the benefits of partial selection. These parents happen to include Mr Blair himself, Harriet Harman and many of the middle-class voters of Wirral South (by-election pending) whose children go to its two grammar schools.

Both parties are haunted by ghosts. Mrs Shephard has boneheaded traditionalists looming over her shoulder, who simply will not accept that a return to the 11-plus would be divisive and unpopular. Meanwhile, David Blunkett, her Labour shadow, is haunted by Graham Lane. Mr Lane may not be well known, but we all recognise him nonetheless. He is chairman of the metropolitan councils' education committee. He is the embodiment of Hattersleyism, the belief that the Local Education Authority knows best. And he has been frightening Daily Mail and Sunday Times readers by threatening to end selection in the 161 state schools which still practise it.

Hence Mr Blunkett's statement yesterday that he would veto plans by local councils to ballot parents on the future of grammar schools, if Labour wins the election. That should keep the Tory switchers of the leafy Wirral happy.

But it does not resolve the dilemma of parental choice. By the exercise of millions of parental choices (including the choice of where to buy a house) over the years, this country's schools are being more and more polarised into good and bad. This is starkly revealed in the findings of the Social Market Foundation study which we report on page 1 today. The Government is hoist by its own league tables. Parental choice is clearly an important principle in a free society, but it cannot be a policy for raising standards across the board.

It is to the question of raising standards for the middle and the bottom of the range of schools that our politicians should speak and act. And it is here that this newspaper gives Mr Blunkett the edge over Mrs Shephard, because she has too often been bogged down - as today - in administrative quagmires.

We accept that it may be easier to sound constructive about standards in opposition than in government, but equally the Conservatives simply have to accept responsibility for the present state of our education system. Of course, it should not be forgotten that most parents are broadly satisfied with their children's own schools, but there can be no doubt that the system as a whole has underperformed, is underperforming and must do better.

That is why, with all parties claiming to put education at the top of their list, only the Liberal Democrats can be credited with meaning what they say. "Will the parties spend more on schools?" was one of the eight key election questions which we asked at the beginning of this month. Only Paddy Ashdown has answered it. Mr Blair's promise to shift resources from social security to education may be better than a poke in the eye, but it cannot sustain "education, education and education" as the three priorities of a Labour government. From the Conservatives, however, all we have is a slap in the face with the old school tie.