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Labour's relaunch

The Labour party is leaving us in no doubt this week about its passionate commitment to education, with major statements on successive days both from its Shadow spokesman David Blunkett, and leader Tony Blair. First, the proposed grant-maintained schools settlement; then, this explosive structural issue out of the way, moving on at once to the longer-term vision and the real issues like school improvement and aspirations.

To take the GM policy first, as David Blunkett had to do, a first reaction is that he has produced the bones of a sensible - even ingenious - political compromise which deserves to succeed on several grounds: it builds forward from the present position rather than simply reversing into a past that is no longer valid; it sets the future of GM schools into the wider context of the LEA role, parental power, and the governance of all state schools; it reintroduces equity to both funding and admissions procedures; it sidesteps direct confrontation on either GM or grammar schools; and it accepts that a transitional period will be needed to move from one status and funding system to another.

Most important, to allow every state school - whether county, voluntary, GM or city technology college - to decide by a vote of the governing body whether to opt for community, aided or foundation status presents a far less threatening prospect than an edict simply returning opted-out schools to local education authority control.

The question for GM schools, of course, is whether opting for foundation status will amount to the same thing, though it looks as if some of the ground rules for foundation status, such as the right to hold assets in trust, to retain charitable status, and to employ their own staff, are the fruits of Mr Blunkett's consultations with GM heads, and therefore acceptable to many of them. And after all, they can hardly expect to remain exactly as they are under a future Labour government, any more than local authorities can reasonably expect to wrench all their old powers back from heads, governors and parents.

Some local authority leaders may be unhappy at the prospect of delegating control of as much as 90 per cent of all school budgets, but many LEAs are already doing something like that, although there are legitimate questions about whether the remaining l0 per cent of the budget will be enough to develop school improvement measures as well as other duties. Others will not welcome the creation of foundation schools or the continued support for aided status, but there will be some LEA representation on foundation school governing bodies, and a clear say on admission procedures for all three types of school, though it remains to be seen whether independent arbitration will work where so much has failed in the past.

There are obviously rows and wrangles to come, especially on funding, and many details and wider funding issues still to settle, but David Blunkett has succeeded in giving some meaning to that elusive phrase "a local democratic framework". There may not be much intellectual rationale to the distinction between community, aided and foundation schools, but they represent a workable political settlement based on existing realities, which on that score at least bears some comparison with the l944 Education Act.

There could now be a constructive outcome for Labour on an issue which threatened to bog down its education policy in bitter infighting because of that symbolic side-issue, the Labour leader's choice of a grant-maintained school for his son, when the real issue was every parent's right to find and choose a good school, regardless of who ran it. Certainly, the principles David Blunkett laid down in The TES nearly a year ago - equity of funding, fair admissions, local accountability, sensible planning, and a commitment to build on the success of local management - are now enshrined in the new policy and require no ad hominem justification or U-turns.

But already, or so Labour hopes, this is yesterday's news. Today we move on to Tony Blair's passionate education speech, previewed in these pages, and delivered in the same hall at London University's Institute of Education where he was elected as party leader almost a year ago.

Keen students of Labour party policy-making will remember that he also soon after presided over the launch of his former spokesman Ann Taylor's education White Paper, a document which is still official policy (with the new GM settlement as an amendment), but which is left some way behind by the new vision.

There is certainly plenty of evidence in the speech that Mr Blair and his advisers have been listening to education's great and good on school improvement and a host of related issues from primary basics to the l6-plus agenda and professional development. Indeed all the signs are that the same school improvers are now advising both Government and Opposition. Whatever that does for the relaunch of Labour's education policy, and it has certainly put Conservative leaders on the defensive, it could be a bonus if we finally have constructive, compatible thinking about the essential issues in schools from both sides of the political divide.

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