Leading Article: Keep out of the classroom

LABOUR's policy statement on education, published last week, is very new Labour indeed. No stirring expressions of belief in the comprehensive principle, no threats to public school privilege, no diatribes against traditional exams. The document seems designed, as most Labour documents do nowadays, to show that the Opposition can slug it out with the fiercest of Tories. It will sack more teachers and sack them faster, demand that seven-year-olds buckle down to homework and learning foreign languages, descend mercilessly upon "failing" schools in a sort of educational Operation Bumblebee. What Labour will not do is stop meddling and allow schools to get on with the job.

Most teachers, and probably most parents too, would prefer Labour meddling to Tory meddling. This is because nearly all Tory ministers send their own children to private schools and therefore haven't the faintest idea what happens in state schools. Shadow ministers don't have much idea either because their children nearly always go to middle-class ghetto schools (some, but not all, of which are opted-out). But at least they have a foot in the state system and this leads them to some sensible proposals. Testing will be organised so that both schools and individual pupils are assessed on how much they improve from year to year - a fairer system than the crude Tory results, which make it almost impossible for those in disadvantaged areas ever to shine. The funding system will be changed so that schools no longer have an incentive to cut costs by sacking the more experienced, long-serving (and therefore more expensive) teachers. All under-sevens will be taught in classes of 30 or less.

These are very simple things, which many people have been pressing on the Tories for years. But politicians cannot stop at simple things, particularly when it comes to schools. A document cannot be confined to three or four pages - it must swell to 30 or 40; partnerships must be forged, development plans written, all manner of things strengthened. Every secretary of state for education for the past 20 years has behaved like a mad inventor, pressing a succession of pet projects on harassed teachers. David Blunkett looks as if he will be no exception. He will be telling teachers how to organise their classes so that brighter pupils work at a faster pace. He will be demanding home-school contracts and home-school associations. He will give all parents access to "advocates" to help them argue with heads. He will "encourage" schools to start breakfast clubs, summer schools and Saturday classes. If teachers have any time or energy left actually to teach, he will not allow them to concentrate on reading, writing, maths, science, history and like orthodoxies. They must also teach citizenship and "parenting".

All these ideas may be perfectly commendable (though it must be doubted that Mr Blunkett would appreciate his children coming home and telling him that, according to the afternoon lesson, he had been parenting wrongly). But are they really the business of Westminster and Whitehall? Since the mid-1970s, central government has mounted a takeover of the schools; before then, even local councils hardly dared to interfere with what was taught. There is not a jot of evidence that increased government activity has led directly to any improvement in the quality of children's education. Indeed, the Tories have virtually been forced to admit that their first stab at a national curriculum caused a fall in literacy standards among primary schoolchildren, because teachers were so overloaded with other material.

Governments and Oppositions should paint with a broad brush and recognise that teachers are not mere technicians, employed to follow a Whitehall instruction manual, but professionals capable of making some decisions for themselves. By all means let government set standards and ensure, through simple tests, that these are being attained. Let it also do everything possible to spare our children from incompetent teachers and badly-run schools - why these should always be the subject of more political fuss than, say, incompetent doctors and badly-run hospitals is hard to understand. But ministers should not get involved in the fine detail of school organisation, curriculum and discipline. The nationalisation of schools has already gone too far. Labour should be looking to reverse it, not to invent new ideas for extending it.