Details the spin doctors ignore

31st October 1997, 12:00am
Chris Price


Details the spin doctors ignore
Political devils, as any old parliamentary stager will tell you, lie in the detail. After just six months in office, the reality of detail is beginning to hit ministers at the Department for Education and Employment.

Before elections detail does not matter. Indeed, VAT on private school fees was slapped down as dangerously detailed. A promise of foundation status, with as little detail as possible, wooed the grant-maintained lobby. A collusive bipartisan spin between Gillian Shephard, David Blunkett and education's Mr Rentafixit, Sir Ron Dearing, blocked discussion of the detail of fees in higher education.

So when reality dawned on May 2, higher education was the first banana skin. The government decided to lumber Sir Ron with the responsi-bility for the principle of intro-ducing higher-education tuition fees, while producing a different "fairer" system of their own.

With David Blunkett on holiday, Lady Blackstone wobbled for a few days on TV under a succession of impossibly detailed questions about the liability of students who had postponed college for a year. A few days later, equilibrium was regained. But the high strategy of spinning had obscured the need to prepare for what was a very rapid change - the introduction of fees in 1998.

Schools spend four years preparing youngsters for the realities of higher education, especially those whose parents never experienced it themselves. Ministers simply had not appreciated the turbulence which the decision to move so rapidly to fee charging would create -and they had not got the detailed answers ready.

So with the preparations for an Education Bill to adjust the 1944 settlement of county and voluntary schools and reintegrate the GM rump, they were more careful. They prepared the ground. Blair said "standards were more important than structure" - a bland statement calculated to reassure local authorities, churches and GM heads. Then a White Paper in July went on at length about standards and relegated the "wicked issues" of structure to the final chapter.

Finally, a cyclostyled "Technical Consultation Paper" appeared in August (for the few experts not on holiday), dotting and crossing some of the "i"s and "t"s - but by no means all of them.

The detail in this paper will undergo scrutiny when the Bill is published and goes into a Commons Committee and then to the Lords in the winter. Already the Bishops have forced a rethink of the original three categories. Only in committee will it become apparent whether ministers have really done the rest of their homework this time.

The Education Act of 1998 will need all the Butlerian diplomatic skills the 1944 settlement received. The Bill will strip local authorities of most of their traditional powers over schools, leaving them with a mere strategic and planning role. Even here they scarcely have real powers any longer. Any dispute will be referred to a new ministerially appointed quango - the Office of the Regional Adjudicator.

It could all end in tears and squabbling. When democratic assemblies are stripped of their large powers, they tend to use petty ones. It is difficult to see quite why we need elections for these local school planning authorities of the future.

There is another lacuna in these carefully prepared documents. Movements are growing that reject out of hand the new tripartite system in the White Paper - foundation, voluntary, community - as lacking any intellectual justification. Supposing all schools opt to become foundation schools - to own their own buildings and employ their own staff. Nowhere does the White Paper or the technical document lay out the detailed rules on that eventuality.

Yet the process of "governing body option" will probably run parallel with the passage of the Bill. Schools will want to know where they are before it becomes law.

So the verdict on the first six months seems to have been a nasty stumble at the first hurdle and an impressive recovery at the second, but real worry about how ministers will cope when the really big hurdles arrive as the Bill goes through in the winter.

The Government, it is true, has the troops to force anything through, but the settlement needs to be a fair one in which slogans like "standards not structure" will not be enough.

Chris Price is a former Labour MP and chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on Education

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