Election 2010: Party promises | Education - Demos' verdict

Some radical thoughts - but do they work?

"Education, education, education" was how Tony Blair set out Labour's election priorities in 1997. Things have changed considerably since then. There is no question standards have risen: in 1997, fewer than 3 in 10 students got 5 A*-C GCSE grades in more than half of our schools. Now that figure applies to just one in 12.

But we still face big challenges. Eight in 100 children leave primary school with maths and/or literacy skills below those of the average 7-year-old, and a disproportionate number come from deprived backgrounds. The most significant challenge for the next decade is closing the achievement gap between poor children and their richer peers. This will not be easily done.

So what do the three parties have to offer? The Conservatives' flagship policy is radical structural reform of the education system. Private companies, charities and parents will be able to set up their own schools outside of local authority control. But whether this will drive up standards and end socio-economic inequalities is highly debateable. If there are more places than pupils, and parents are willing to keep moving their kids around until they find a good school - or start one up themselves - then it might. But in Sweden, where the reforms were pioneered, there is no agreement on whether they have been successful.

The Tories are also have some centrist proposals that tug against their radical, "devolution of power" rhetoric, such as a more traditional National Curriculum. What hasn't made the cut is just as interesting: a previous, promising Conservative commitment to paying schools in deprived areas a per-pupil premium has disappeared.

The Labour manifesto promises more one-to-one and small-group tuition for children falling behind in the basic skills at school, and centres for the families of under-fives, to help ensure all children are school-ready. Parents will also be given the right to change a school's leadership team if they are unhappy with the quality of their child's education. Successful teams will be encouraged to run more schools through federations. A promised "local pupil premium" for children from deprived backgrounds is intended to help schools narrow the gap, although there is little information on how this would work. Essentially, Labour wants to continue with the direction it has taken over the last 13 years - a solid and sensible, if unexciting, set of proposals.

The Liberal Democrats are the only party to promise a big cash injection for schools - £2.5bn - via a pupil premium targeted at schools educating children from poor backgrounds. However, they don't say much about how they would support schools in using the money to close the gap between rich and poor - indeed, they make it clear that one of their preferred uses of the cash would be to reduce class sizes to 20 in primary schools. But academic evidence shows that reducing class sizes for children aged over 7 has very little impact on outcomes. The money would be spent much more effectively elsewhere - for example, on one-to-one tuition as proposed by Labour and on specialist support for the one in five children in our school system with additional learning needs. However, the Lib Dems do go further than the other parties on vocational education, saying they would bring GCSEs, A Levels and vocational qualifications together in a general diploma.

So there are clear dividing lines and choices between the parties. On balance, proposals from Labour best respond to the challenge framed above. The Conservative proposals would see the most radical restructuring of the system, but without evidence that these changes will actually improve standards, it seems the choice comes back to ideology.

Sonia Sodha is head of the Public Finance programme at Demos

Read the manifesto promises on education here.