Come on Mr Cameron, voters deserve something better, coherent and soon

IMAGINE for a minute you are David Cameron or Michael Gove, the Shadow Schools Secretary; or any other MP. Your child needs a decent school. You can afford private fees but, for political reasons, you prefer a state school. Do you have a problem?

Almost certainly not. As an MP, there's not a school in the country that wouldn't welcome your child – not least because your position

offers easy access to education Ministers.

Now back to reality.

You and your child may live in Barnsley, Bradford, Hull or Sheffield, where standards are seriously below average. You work hard, but paying fees is not an option. What choice do you have?

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Probably none. Securing a place at the best primary or secondary schools is a lottery – literally or metaphorically. Most schools

are mediocre and many are officially failing. Although an ICM opinion poll in 2006 showed 70 per cent of those questioned would like to see more state-funded grammar schools, none of the major towns or cities in Yorkshire has a single one.

There is a ray of hope. If the Conservatives win the election, and if you have time and can find some premises, you may be allowed to start your own "free" school, funded with taxpayers' money. But with restrictions: you can't select pupils on ability and organisations that operate for profit are barred.

So if Mr Cameron is to win the support of voters in Yorkshire and elsewhere in the North, what should he and his colleagues

be offering?

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A new education Bill should be a priority. Current education law is spread between numerous Acts of Parliament, regulations and guidance. It's riddled with confusions and contradictions.

Any sensible Prime Minister would repeal the lot and start with a clean sheet. Most reforms won't need legislation. But change should start at the beginning – as children do, with primary schools.

Primaries should have a subject-based curriculum and politically-correct lessons such as Personal, Social and Economic Education, which distract teachers and weaken the authority of parents, should be replaced by lessons that will raise standards.

News that growing numbers of primary schools have fewer than half their 11-year-olds reaching expected standards in English and maths show the depth of the malaise. Why aren't these schools named and shamed?

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Simple reading tests at seven, with publication of the average chronological age of each school's cohort alongside their average reading age, would show where the problems are. Instead of confusing children with different ways of doing similar sums, why not ensure they are taught one method for each type of calculation? Primary schools should be given an unambiguous aim – to give their pupils solid foundations and open doors to later learning: in science, geography, history, art, music, religious education, competitive games and sport. Teachers must be accountable. Any ideas of abolishing objective testing for 11-year-olds, or fudging publication, should be firmly rejected.

At secondary level, genuine choice and competition between different types of school is vital.

Despite their exorbitant cost, Tony Blair's academy schools have not been universally popular or successful. Six years into the programme and inspectors report that "a considerable number" of academies are failing to provide a decent education. Parents know this, and that bringing good schools to "federate" with bad ones merely weakens the best. Limiting academies and other new schools to areas of clear need would avoid unnecessary disruption and save billions of taxpayers' pounds.

Mr Cameron should guarantee security for the remaining grammar schools and offer the option of new ones, where there is parental demand. All schools should be free to set their own admission arrangements without resorting to catchment areas. Secondary performance tables should continue to be published, but in an honest, simpler form.

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Meanwhile, the secondary curriculum should be reduced to essentials, as should the qualifications on offer. Exams should be rigorous and meaningful. Pressure, financial or otherwise, on further or higher education institutions to accept sub-standard candidates at the expense of those who are better qualified should be outlawed.

Other, more general, improvements?

Teacher training encourages a non-judgmental mindset which fails to differentiate between right and wrong. Why spend taxpayers' money on that? Local authorities are not doing their job. If they were, there would be no failing schools. Most of their responsibilities for education should be removed.

One final reform is essential. In total, it now costs about 6,000 a year to educate a primary child in the state sector and about 8,000 a year for a secondary child. Mr Cameron should make a commitment that within 12 months of taking office, he will ensure that all parents receive annual vouchers for similar amounts to spend at the school of their choice, whether state or private.

This would introduce a vital ingredient for success: direct accountability. And, of course, it would eliminate dozens of wasteful bureaucracies, including the Department for Children, Families and Schools.

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Time is running out for Messrs Cameron and Gove who, up to now, have shown a disturbing affinity with the establishment's vested interests. Are voters wrong to expect something better, coherent and soon?

Nick Seaton, from York, is chairman of Campaign for Real Education.