Leading Article: Money, money and money

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The Independent Online
In their Easter conference halls, teachers are drawing up their wish lists for a new government. They are not counting their chickens. This week has done little to reassure teachers or parents that either major party is serious about improving education. Labour has announced that children will be enticed into doing their homework by organising homework clubs at football grounds and the Conservatives have said that 14-year-olds will face national tests not just in English, maths and science but also in all seven other national curriculum subjects including PE, art and music.

This is fantasy politics. As any parent knows, getting homework done is a daily challenge, insoluble sometimes, even by what teenagers call "serious" bribery, let alone by trekking to your friendly local football stadium. Girls, presumably, will be offered study sessions at their local branch of Top Shop. The television pictures of pupils, pen in hand, shivering in the middle of a football pitch, exposed the exercise for what it is: a gimmick. The Conservatives' plan for more testing looks, at first, less silly. But it isn't. At present, teachers are just getting to grips with placing 14-year-olds on levels one (bottom) to eight (top) in English, maths and science in national tests. They already have to assess pupils during class in all national curriculum subjects. Is Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State, (or is it Conservative Central Office?) seriously suggesting that they should also line pupils up in the gym or on the sports field once a year and decide whether they are level five or six in everything from wicket-keeping to forward rolls? We would be the most tested nation in Europe and, almost certainly, no better educated.

Perhaps education has been at the centre of the political stage so long that Government and Opposition have run out of shots. Conservatives, with their pledges on more selection, school targets and nursery vouchers, would claim to be raising standards. Labour, with policies on homework guidelines, lower class sizes and literacy for all 11-year-olds would do the same.

Labour promises that its priority would be "education, education and education" and David Blunkett, shadow Secretary of State, says there will be no problem in diverting cash into it, even in the first two years of government. Teachers are rightly suspicious. All the evidence is that they will be the target of Labour initiatives, rather than the beneficiaries. Moves to speed the dismissal of teachers who "cannot do the job" will confirm some of the profession's worst fears. The Labour pledges costed so far have simply shifted cash from one bit of the education budget to another. Even if Labour has done its sums properly - and some experts suggest it has not - the money involved looks like small beer for hugely ambitious undertakings.

As Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said last week, no one is expecting pounds 10 notes to rain from heaven. But if Mr Blair fails to provide the means to carry out his triplicate promise, he will stand accused of an historic act of duplicity.

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