Leading article: Debt should not overshadow education in the election campaign

Labour should be held to account over its pledge to transform schools
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Thirteen years ago, when Labour took power, schools were at the forefront of the incoming government's agenda. "Education, education, education" was Tony Blair's mantra. This week, as we move into a general election – the first genuinely close contest since 1992 – it is vital that education does not sink beneath the radar and that the Government is held to account over the confident promise it made all those years ago.

The balance sheet is not good. Labour has had three terms to sort out schools, years in which it has tipped money into the system on a scale that may never be repeated. Yet, as with the health system, unprecedented levels of investment have yielded disappointingly little. The Education Secretary, Ed Balls, talked confidently yesterday of ensuring budgets for schools and colleges continue to rise. Bold words, given the state of Britain's finances and the pledges of both main parties to maintain NHS spending.

Mr Balls makes much of what have been only modest improvements in literacy, reductions in average class size and massive building projects that have transformed the careworn school buildings of yesteryear into glass palaces. But the bigger picture in education is one of failed expectations and wrong messages sent to teachers and pupils alike.

All of this cannot be laid at the feet of the Government. Vast societal changes have been at work, eroding the pre-war culture that venerated education and made demigods of teachers. Today's teachers cannot count on respect in class. They have to earn it, often from pupils coming from broken or dysfunctional families in which discipline is non-existent. More than ever before in our history the teacher stands in loco parentis, expected to compensate for the failings of families while navigating complex and often contradictory guidelines on what degree of discipline they are entitled to wield in class.

The government's response has been to throw money at problems in the hope they will go away, while concentrating on achieving instant superficial improvements by erecting new buildings.

Alongside this, it has been enslaved by the notion that big is always better and that vocational and technical subjects should always be prioritised over academic ones. It often assumes that schooling is the same as skilling. It is also obsessed with controlling teachers through targets. Targets can deliver. But in the end, a target culture reduces education to bureaucracy and crushes initiative. The creation of what amounts to a caste system in the teaching profession, by rewarding "superheads" with salaries vastly larger than the rest, is another questionable development. Labour seems convinced that they are the answer to failing inner-city schools. But the creation of this elite sends out a demoralising message to "ordinary" teachers, as do reports of children sitting on interview panels for teachers.

It remains to be seen whether the opposition can breathe new life into an education system in which all society's ills are writ large. But it is a pity that Labour is intent on shouting down without discussion whatever ideas the Tory spokesman Michael Gove comes up with, such as Swedish-style independent state schools. Whichever party wins control after the election, it will need to start thinking more holistically about what education is for. The debt crisis looms large, but we must not allow this issue to blot out everything else in the campaign. If there is one thing more important than sorting out debt, it is sorting out education.