Heads remain to be convinced

Josephine Gardiner

Headteachers have scrutinised Labour education policy and found the devil in its lack of detail. In a statement published this week, the council of the Secondary Heads Association raises doubts about almost every aspect of Diversity and Excellence, Labour's policy document, while applauding its overall commitment to social justice, writes Josephine Gardiner.

While SHA supports Labour's pledge on equitable funding - perhaps the most important principle underpinning the policy because it eliminates the grant-maintained schools' financial advantage - it argues that without further explanation of how this would work, the promise is "vague and unconvincing".

Does equitable funding mean a national funding formula applied to all schools, and if so, would this include adjustments for local needs? Would primary and secondary schools be funded through the same formula? Labour recommends 90 per cent delegation of funds for all schools - what money currently held by education authorities would be targeted for delegation? Labour should get all this sorted out before the election, warns SHA.

The council also calls for a national audit to assess school buildings and a "generous commitment" to spending on repairs and rebuilding. "Greater transparency" is needed to define criteria for the allocation of repair money - "it has to be said that many LEA decisions in the past appear to have been, at the very least, arbitrary".

Heads of GM schools are telling SHA that governors and parents are already demanding to know how foundation schools, which GM schools would become under Labour, would work. Foundation schools would be more autonomous than community schools, and this, says the report, "would entail a need for differential funding to carry out the activities implied".

SHA also says the labels proposed by Labour are "not particularly helpful . . . many present GM schools regard themselves as schools which serve the local community and would query the idea that they are not community schools. " Instead, LEA schools should be called simply "LEA schools" and GM schools "governing body schools".

More thought is needed on admissions, too - in particular on who appoints and pays members of the independent local panels which would settle parents' disputes over places.

Also on admissions, SHA says that the idea of specialism at 11-plus is not compatible with a comprehensive system. "In most cases it is likely to be a covert means of selecting children already predisposed to succeed." It adds that giving priority to children who come from particular feeder schools, also permitted by Diversity and Excellence, is a form of "covert selection which can be insidious in their effect".

Heads are obviously nervous that a Labour government would mean a return to the bad old days of LEA domination: "SHA members would bitterly oppose a return to the overbearing paternalism which used to be displayed by some LEAs. "

SHAfinally reminds new Labour not to forget the effects of poverty on children's education. Beside this, it says, "all of the above pales into insignificance".

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