Leader: The need for a great debate

A new week, a new initiative on education. Today, Tony Blair will attempt to dispel some of Labour's post-Harmanite gloom by putting forward a couple of ideas of his own for improving standards and choice in schools. Southwark Cathedral will be the venue for unveiling new Labour thinking on getting the best teaching into "sink" schools, and opening up a "fast track" within existing schools for very able children.

Just a few weeks ago, such a speech would have been regarded with routine interest. Blair would have pronounced, teaching unions would have stated their concern at his words, a few column inches would have appeared in the more educationally interested newspapers and that would have been it.

Not any more. What will doubtless pass into history as Labour's week of dis-Harmany has changed all that. For the time being, education has come to usurp Europe, the economy and rising violent crime as the lodestone of the nation's feeling of unease and underachievement. The attention that the education system is getting is both welcome and overdue.

But as the weekend's bouts of accusation and rebuttal, punditry and attitudinising have shown, we are in mortal danger of having the wrong debate about schools. The British people are being invited to make choices between ante-diluvian positions on the questions of selection, comprehensivisation, class sizes and "modern teaching methods", as presented to them by contending dinosaurs.

The irrelevance of some of this discussion is demonstrated by the fact that even the Conservative Party is not suggesting for one minute that the nation reintroduce the old 11-plus system of selecting the academic sheep from the goats. They are allowing some more selection to creep in at the margins, but they understand all too well that nostalgia for a lost era does not constitute a modern education strategy. To take just one recent example, how would selection assist in raising the woeful reading and mathematics standards of our 11-year-olds?

All the main parties, in their calmer moments, have ideas that may assist an improvement in British education. The Government was right to set up Ofsted to inspect schools, right to increase the power of parent governors, right to publish the examination results of schools. Messrs Blunkett and Blair are correct to talk about targeting resources on failing schools, correct to talk about parental responsibility and homework, correct to suggest that schools should be flexible enough to allow very able children to move up. All parties now express a belief in offering a range of types of school for parents to choose between. As general principles, openness and accountability, along with parental involvement and flexibility, will serve very well.

The trouble arises when the debate turns to the motor that will drive our education system. The Conservatives, despite their championing of a limited voucher scheme for nursery schools, have utterly failed (despite being in power for 21 of the past 26 years) to choose between selection by the school and selection by the parent as the key factor. One is forced to the conclusion that they simply do not have sufficient personal interest in state schooling to take the electoral risks of making up their minds.

The Opposition is not doing much better. Fundamentally, the David Blunkett approach (which has the virtue of concentrating on standards in the majority of schools, not just the best ones) is state-driven. It relies wholly on inspectorates, directives and agencies to improve things. The Liberal Democrats' main stated policy, on the other hand, is simply to spend more, without seeming to have any clear idea of where and why.

This is not good enough. Once again, as in the early Forties, we need to come together and debate education with a passionate interest but a dispassionate argument. We know we are in a fix, and that our children and our futures are suffering. It is time to put party and prejudice aside and open a discussion in which the whole nation can take part.