Leading Article: Opening up the school closet

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The Independent Online
Yesterday's outing of Gillian Shephard is a relief. Deep down, we suspected that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment recognised the truth. To this former schools' inspector, the reality of education underfunding must always have been unmistakable.

But politics stopped Mrs Shephard acknowledging the problem. Now at least she can stop pretending. Her leaked Cabinet briefing document clearly admits what she has denied repeatedly: that "insufficient resources threaten the provision of education in the state school sector, including grant maintained schools." This was no mystery to the parents, teachers and governors who protested against this year's funding award. After yesterday's admission, the national debate might at last move on from discussing whether there is insufficient cash to studying ways to make up the shortfall.

Nobody should be too surprised that a document of this sort - addressed to a "political" meeting of the Cabinet - draws a distinction between what ministers really think and how they would like to present matters to the public. It is just another reminder of the way that our politicians underestimate the intelligence and maturity of the electorate.

The picture that emerges is of a government which thinks (fairly) that it has made some sensible reforms in education - the national curriculum, testing and a dramatic improvement in access to post-school education being the three most noteworthy. But the Government is caught in a bind it cannot explain to voters. Since the Conservatives want to cut taxes (or, more accurately shift from one form of taxation to another), can't agree on areas where public spending should be cut and have run out of things to privatise, they have to deny what to most parents and students is a self-evident truth. Our schools are short of resources, often of the most basic equipment, such as books, and more needs to be spent on ensuring that we have teachers of the right quality and experience.

One way forward is to declare, as the Liberal Democrats have, that taxes will be raised in order to increase education spending. Mr Blair has spoken of education being "the passion" of his government, but Mrs Shephard's paper acidly notes the confusion that lies behind the Labour leader's rhetoric.

As ever in British politics, it is hard choice time. If we want to spend more on schools but cannot raise taxes or find compensating cuts elsewhere in public spending, the only alternative is to make shifts within the education budget. That can only mean requiring the ever larger number of people going to university to shoulder more of the cost, possibly through a special tax on working graduates. But this would, the paper screams, "affect a whole segment of middle-class youngsters, losing both their votes and those of their parents."

The alternative is that we agree to pretend and the spin doctors get to work on calling that pretence firm leadership, rising standards and more choice. "We must emphasise words that people find attractive, such as standards, discipline and choice," says the paper. Thus is Mr Major's government trapped in the beam of the headlights: it cannot risk offending the middle classes by taking away their subsidies and it must pretend that it intends to reduce the burden of taxation they face. What was that word Mrs Thatcher once used? Frit. Like the rabbit in the middle of the road.

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