Leading Article: Schools pledge spins out of control

NEW LABOUR'S team of spin-doctors must remember when their five election pledges looked simply masterful. Their famous five pledges were slapped on to big posters, little cards and coffee mugs. Clear, simple, easy to remember. They were modest, and soothed the nerves of the anxious taxpayers of Middle England. The pledges may have been routinely derided as "timid" but this was far preferable to being accused of socialist idealism. But they did still betoken some sort of commitment to the public services.

Just over a year into the government, though, and the spin-meisters must now be feeling a little edgy. In their own formulation, we have passed through the "post-euphoria, pre-delivery" stage and some serious and awkward questions about the chances of their "early" promises being redeemed even by the next general election are now being asked.

The Local Government Association's new report casts severe doubt on Labour being able to fulfil its ambition to reduce class sizes for five- to seven- year-olds to less than 30. At the practical level of running an infants' school, a head who has classes over the limit will have to resort to mixed- age teaching. This, however, is not always an ideal solution and is disliked by parents. The alternative - for the Government - is to reduce parental choice by going back on its reforms and restricting entry to schools where class sizes are rising - just the ones that parents want to send their children to. If the Government finds those solutions unappealing then it could raise taxes to fund the guarantee. Politically poisonous.

It need not have been so. The emphasis on class sizes no doubt went down well with focus groups, opinion polls and, indeed, the voters. But the very clarity of the formulation lent it an undue rigidity. Had the spin- doctors taken the policy implications more seriously, then they might have looked to America, where they prefer to regulate on the basis of the average class size, so building flexibility into the regime. In Scotland, where class sizes are subject to the law, they work on the basis of a band. In any case, being in a class of 31 rather than 29 must make a rather marginal difference, and not one that would justify the distortions that may be visited on teaching in the name of this pledge.

So it came it pass that the Government was throttled with the thinnest of threads. All of Mr Blunkett's excellent work on standards and tackling bad schools could be undone by a single soundbite. It is a salutary lesson in the dangers of putting spin before substance. The spin-doctors chose the wrong way to present the wrong target. They have also chosen the wrong way to restore faith in the ability of politicians to keep their promises.