Leading Article: Labour needs to spell it out

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The Independent Online
THE Open University is remembered as one of the great creations of the 1964-70 Labour government, offering third-level education to millions of people. Yet it is often forgotten that this achievement did not spring from tortured debate or a resolution at the party conference. Harold Wilson simply adopted the idea when in opposition and implemented it by order once he became prime minister.

If only Labour's education policy were as decisive today. Instead, it is bogged down by party bureaucracy and its ineffectual, low-profile education spokeswoman, Ann Taylor. John Smith's leadership did not help. He came from Scotland, whose schools work remarkably well, and could not properly appreciate the problem down south. Two years on from the general election, policy has barely advanced beyond the outdated manifesto.

The party has no answer for thousands of people emerging from Britain's fast-expanding further education colleges. Many of them will soon be denied university places because of a lack of public funds. Last autumn, Jeffrey Rooker was removed from Labour's front bench team when he suggested a radical solution: repayable loans for higher education fees. The party ditched the idea, and it is now the subject of a national debate in which Labour plays no part.

A detailed policy has yet to be worked out on nursery education, probably the most fruitful area in which fresh funds could be invested. The party favours universal provision for three- and four-year-olds, but it has no timetable for putting promises into action or funds to pay for them. Radical solutions are available, such as transferring state cash from higher education to nursery level: at a stroke, a generally middle-class privilege would be reduced, to give poorer infants as good a start as their wealthier peers enjoy.

Labour baulks at spelling out these difficult options, preferring to fudge the debate. But without detail, its pledges on nursery education are as meaningless as those made by Margaret Thatcher two decades ago. Likewise, the party speaks of taking grant-maintained schools back under vaguely defined local control, as if they will return sheepishly after several years of independence. That might have been true at the general election, when only a few schools had opted out. Soon there will be thousands. Policy should match reality.

Tony Blair shows more signs than Mr Smith of understanding that education is of primary political importance, particularly among opinion formers in London, where schools are worst. He speaks to common-sense concerns about discipline, numeracy and literacy.

Labour's heir-apparent cannot afford to let the malaise in education policy-making continue. David Blunkett, Robin Cook or Jack Straw would be better suited as spokesman. Mr Blair must nail Labour's colours to the blackboard, with bold and specific policies designed to fulfil the nation's urgent needs rather than the educational establishment's vested interests.