Blunkett's Bill is ready for take-off

Frances Rafferty & Clare Dean

As he embarks on his first major reform Bill, the Education Secretary David Blunkett likens his position to that of a pilot whose plane is in a queue at Heathrow airport. Once the controller gives you a slot you take it. If Mr Blunkett does not take off with his Bill in November, he has no guarantee when the next slot in a crowded legislative timetable will be.

So despite criticism at the Labour party conference for not making the consultation period on his far-reaching White Paper long enough, Mr Blunkett is staying revved up on the runway and ready to go.

And the responses to the White Paper Excellence in Schools, due in this week, reveal that most parties are prepared to stay on board, but there are concerns that the flight will be very bumpy.

All parties share the Government's determination to raise standards and see the Excellence in Schools as a genuine attempt to do so. But the creation of three categories of school - foundation, community and aided - and the composition of their governing bodies and admission policies is fraught with controversy, with the Catholic Church predicting administrative chaos.

One end of the spectrum, represented by Parents Opposed to Opting Out and the Campaign for State Education, essentially sees the creation of foundation schools as a sop to the doomed grant-maintained sector and accuses the Labour Government of selling out.

"The framework for school status and management is incoherent and unworkable, " said CASE. "Let us rid our education system of these anomalous monuments to greed and self-interest - GM schools. As long as inequality of structures exist so will inequality of standards and opportunity," said the parents.

But there appears to be no room for negotiation over foundation status, the successor to GM schools. Cynics claimed this originally stemmed from the fact that Tony Blair's son attended an opted-out school.

In turn, the GM movement argues its successes should not be disregarded just because of dogma. Labour members of the Local Government Association proved their New Labour credentials by siding with the Tories against the Liberal Democrats over a motion calling for just two categories of school, community and voluntary. Government sources have also let it be known that foundation status is "set in stone".

In its evidence the GM school movement says it "deeply regrets" the abolition of GM status, but sees potential in the foundation category as long as the local authority has prescribed powers.

The Funding Agency for Schools, the quango set up to administer opt-out finance, is backing foundation status - arguing that it has "the greatest potential for children".

The Society of Education Officers, meanwhile, has an over-riding concern that the proposed new structure will give rise to a feeling on the part of schools that structure does matter.

Brian Gillow, Shropshire councillor and Tory member of the LGA education committee, was more direct: "The education White Paper is full of motherhood and apple pie rhetoric but is lacking in substance and ... costings."

For civil servants drafting the Bill, the responses give much food for thought on the nitty gritty. They show that redefining the complicated relationships between religious foundations, trustees and the different arrangements over ownership of land and assets and the local education authority will be a nightmare. The arrangements for admissions and the role of an adjudicator also comes under critical scrutiny.

The church schools, concerned that their special status will be eroded, intend to fight on a number of fronts.

The churches, according to the Church of England's Board of Education, contribute about Pounds 20 million to aided school buildings. This is because they meet 15 per cent of capital costs. "Should aided schools opt for foundation status in large numbers this money will be lost to the state, " said its evidence.

The Catholic Church believes the Government's attempt to tackle the anomalies in its proposed framework will lead to administrative chaos and result in a proliferation of sub-categories of schools. It is also concerned about losing its schools to foundation status.

Labour's manifesto pledge to reduce class sizes to 30 and under for five to seven-year-olds has provoked opposition across the board. There are concerns that it will affect admissions and parental choice and school managers do not welcome the interference.

Schools say it will be difficult for rural schools to implement and others prefer to use support staff to help teachers with large classes.

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