Leading article: The Conservatives have learned their lesson

David Cameron has laid down a serious challenge on education
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The Independent Online

For understandable reasons, the words "brazenly elitist" do not come out of David Cameron's mouth very often. But yesterday, in announcing his party's plans for the education sector, the Conservative leader made an exception. And rightly so.

The "elitism" that Mr Cameron was referring to was, of course, not his own social background, but rather the new cadre of super-intelligent and dynamic teachers he intends to lure into state-school classrooms if his party wins the forthcoming general election.

Mr Cameron was full of promises and incentives, such as paying off the student loans of the brightest and best qualified candidates and allowing head teachers to award bonuses to the top classroom performers. He also pledged to raise the status of the profession, by denying state-funded training to anyone who does not have at least a lower second class degree.

Yet there were promises of stick as well as carrot, with the warning that failing teachers (whose number the Government's former education adviser, Sir Cyril Taylor, estimated at 17,000) will no longer be tolerated. The Tories would make it easier for head teachers to "manage out" underperforming teaching staff. All this will, according to Mr Cameron, help to make teaching "the new noble profession".

Of course, there is a world of difference between promises in opposition and action in office. There is no way of knowing how effective Mr Cameron and his team would actually be in facing down the conservative vested interests that bedevil the education sector. The teaching unions can certainly be relied upon to resist fiercely any attempts to permit variable pay in schools and the speeding up of the dismissal process.

A question mark also hangs over the issue of funding. The sort of customer-facing, supremely flexible schools system that Mr Cameron and his education spokesman, Michael Gove, envisage will cost money up front to establish. At a time of inevitably shrinking departmental budgets, it is hard to see where that necessary investment will come from. Mr Cameron also fails to acknowledge that one of the reasons why the social status of teaching has not declined still further in recent years is that Labour has spent considerable resources in bumping up teachers' salaries. But the general orientation of the Conservatives cannot be faulted. The party leadership's new-found determination to drive improvements in state education contrasts markedly with former policies which were built around trying to help middle-class parents escape to the private sector, or indulging activists who yearn for the return of academic selection at age 11.

The Tories' plans to build on the Government's Teach First scheme, which encourages high-flying graduates into the classrooms of challenging inner-city schools, indicates a willingness to learn from policies that have worked. And the idea of allowing greater sums of money to follow students from poor backgrounds around the system is another welcome indication of the Tories' seriousness about improving the opportunities for the most disadvantaged children.

All this represents a serious challenge to the other parties. They need to explain how they would be more effective in driving up outcomes and quality. A competitive political auction on reform of the education system is nothing whatsoever for parents to be afraid of.