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Both parties stress schools, but rule out more money

April 24, 1997

SLOUGH, England (AP) _ Rahul Nath is furious. His 5-year-old son has just started kindergarten at a crowded, rundown state school where government figures show teaching in key subjects is poor.

``I didn’t want to send my son there _ I worry about the standards,″ says Nath, whose street in this industrial town is lined with dilapidated houses.

``If you are rich, you get into the best schools; but if you are not, you have no choice.″

With many working class Britons sharing his feelings, education has become a key issue in Britain’s May 1 election campaign.

Labor Party leader Tony Blair tells voters that after 18 years of Conservative government, nearly half of 11-year-olds in England and Wales failed to reach expected standards in English and math in national tests in 1996.

Blair says his party’s No. 1 election issue ``education, education and education.″

Yet neither Labor, which leads opinion polls, nor the governing Conservatives is promising to spend more on improving schools. The small, centrist Liberal Democrats, who stand no chance of winning power, are alone in vowing to raise income taxes to put more money into education.

Britain has a smaller percentage of 17- and 18-year-olds in full-time education than any other major industrial nation.

It spends $3,800 a year on each primary and secondary pupil _ eighth among the 15 members of the European Union. Ireland is top with $5,300.

In 1992, 25 percent of primary school students were in classes of 31 or more; today the figure is more than 31 percent. Teachers complain about lack of books, crumbling buildings, poor sports facilities _ and stress.

In an effort to raise standards, the Conservatives have revised curriculums and introduced national testing.

They have increased schools’ autonomy, including powers to select pupils on merit. A previous system of selection, which graded all pupils at the age of 11, was jettisoned in the 1970s.

But although many state schools now may select a proportion of pupils, in reality many recruit almost exclusively from better-off areas. So schools in poor areas absorb the less confident, less academically oriented students _ and produce poor results.

Labor, the traditional party of the working class, officially opposes selection. But it will retain 160 academically exclusive state schools, known as grammar schools. It says it will not change the rules at other schools that select some pupils.

Conservatives repeatedly note that Blair put his 13-year-old son, Euan, in a selective school, not in the local public school.

``The truth is that what he wants for his own children, he doesn’t want for yours ... this isn’t a manifesto, it’s a shameless contract with hypocrisy,″ Prime Minister John Major said earlier this month.

Labor says it can find more money for schools by cutting unemployment, and the cost of supporting the unemployed.

It promises to cut class sizes to a maximum of 30 for 5, 6 and 7 year olds, using money saved by scrapping state-funded places at private schools.

At Montem County Middle School, where Nath’s son is a pupil, only 42 percent of 11 year olds passed English in 1996 and 35 percent passed science in 1996. Many classes are larger than 30 students.

That worries another parent, Carol Hill, whose 9-year-old, Andrew, is poor at reading. ``Class sizes are too big,″ she said. ``If things gets worse, I will move him to another school.″

Schools must give priority to local children, but some parents get around this by using false addresses.

Nath is considering another option _ moving to nearby Eton. He has no hope of getting his child into the elite private school there, but in upscale Eton, he says, ``State schools are good.″

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