Improving standards in schools will take more than empty political slogans

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The Government's decision to make education the subject of its first "mini manifesto" shows that Tony Blair still regards it as one of Labour's strongest cards in the forthcoming general election. This is despite the fact that it is an area - much like the health service - that seems to arouse great passions and provoke bitter recriminations.

The Government's decision to make education the subject of its first "mini manifesto" shows that Tony Blair still regards it as one of Labour's strongest cards in the forthcoming general election. This is despite the fact that it is an area - much like the health service - that seems to arouse great passions and provoke bitter recriminations.

In truth, we did not hear any startlingly new ideas yesterday. The concept of "personalised learning" featured heavily in the Government's five-year plan for education, launched last year. What Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, attempted to sketch out yesterday was what this will mean in practice. According to Ms Kelly, pupils of all ages will receive "tailored" tuition if Labour wins a third term. They will be coached in small groups, both during the school day and after school. It might mean one-to-one tuition in some cases. A pupil's particular strengths and weaknesses will be addressed much more directly than is possible in large classes.

Such a plan has much to recommend it. This is the sort of personalised attention found in the best private schools - and one of the reasons why students in those institutions consistently perform so well. There is no reason why pupils in the state sector would not equally benefit. It would also give parents a much greater opportunity to become involved in and monitor their child's work. The Prime Minister's talk of introducing "parent power" into schools might have been a bit of cheap sloganising, but it is unquestionably the case that teachers are too unresponsive to the concerns and priorities of parents at the moment.

But it is necessary to sound a note of caution. There is no point making demands on schools that they cannot meet. It is true that thanks to Labour there are many more teachers than there were in 1997, but the Government must ensure there is enough spare teaching capacity before it demands the establishment of personal tuition classes. It is all very well attempting to follow the example of private schools, but the Government must bear in mind that they tend to have smaller classes, not to mention greater resources.

And then there is the question of priorities. Britain's primary schools have succeeded in raising standards in the eight years since Labour came to power, but the situation is nowhere near as rosy as the Government likes to make out. Last month's Ofsted report revealed that one in three children are leaving primary school unable to write properly. The Government must not be distracted from its overriding priority: raising standards in literacy and numeracy.

It is also necessary to bear in mind this government's tendency to play politics. On countless occasions, we have seen Mr Blair succumb to the temptation to opt for a headline-grabbing gimmick, rather than a properly thought-out policy. This is as true for education as any other area. The lamentable failure of the e-University, established by the then Education Secretary David Blunkett in 2000, is a classic example. The Commons Education Committee yesterday revealed that this short-lived white elephant cost the taxpayer £50m.

Another, more recent, example is the Government's rejection of the Tomlinson report's proposal that A-levels and GCSEs be replaced. This is widely believed to be due to Mr Blair's fear that such a move would cause panic among the middle classes in the run-up to an election. The fact that an overhaul of the secondary school examination is long overdue and demanded by virtually the entire educational establishment was clearly not enough to change the Prime Minister's mind.

The proposal for greater "personalised learning" in schools has much in its favour. It would help students to fulfil their true potential, and could reduce truancy rates if pupils feel they are getting more out of their lessons. But it must be sensitively implemented. And, most importantly, it must not become another empty slogan. After eight years, we have had more than our fill of those.

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