From Thatcher to Major, and from Blair to Brown, the most heated arguments about education have turned on the question of choice. The election of 2010 is no different, but this time it is hard to concentrate on the debate, because of the distracting background din of the steel being sharpened for the savage years ahead. The row over fees for state nurseries which has now beset the Conservatives is a more instructive guide to what the next few years have in stall than any of the choice agendas we are being asked to choose from.
The Conservatives’ Michael Gove has long argued the best way to raise standards in general – and most particularly in deprived places – is to enable disgruntled parents to walk away from failing local authorities and establish schools of their own. Regarded by Mr Gove as a natural extension of Tony Blair’s academy programme, the plan is inspired by an 18-year old experiment in Sweden. And, until recently, the most pertinent questions related to the Swedish evidence. Initially positive signs have recently been overshadowed by the nation slipping down the educational league, and growing fears that gains in its free schools may have come at the expense of other institutions. As the scale of the post-election retrenchment becomes clearer, however, the really big question is the one acutely posed yesterday by a top Conservative councillor. Although Kent’s leader, Paul Carter, later “clarified” that he supported the party line, his query about where the cash will come from still demands an answer.