While Diversity and Excellence: A New Choice for Schools, launched yesterday, reiterates the party's "implacable opposition to a return to selection by 11-plus", it also stresses that a Labour government would not force schools operating selective admissions policies to make changes. However, it opens the way for local parents to fight for an end to academic selection.
"While we have never supported grammar schools in their exclusion of children by examination, change can only come through local agreement. Such change in the character of the school would only follow a clear demonstration of support from the parents affected by such decisions," says the position paper.
Such parents would be those living within the catchment area of the school, opening up the strong possibility of challenges in areas such as the London borough of Kingston, where only the top nine cent of local children get places at the Tiffin girls' grammar school compared with 15 per cent before the 1989 High Court ruling allowing children from neighbouring education authorities to win places in Greenwich schools.
While Labour is playing down the proposal as "not a major issue", the schools themselves are bound to be alarmed. Such fears may be slightly assuaged by the document's stressing that where a school's admissions policies affect children from more than one authority, the lead authority will be expected to consult its neighbours. "Because admissions policies affect all parents in the community, we want to see a consultative partnership agreed and developed between all schools and the LEA," says the paper. It foresees few problems, saying most GM schools do not want to become grammars while LEAs are keen to help schools develop a distinctive identity.
However, if attempts at creating a consultative policy fail, an independent arbitrator will advise the Secretary of State on how the dispute should be solved. Parents will also have the right to appeal to a completely independent body if their child has not been offered a place at their preferred school, rather than a panel of three including one LEA representative as at present.
Labour suggests that oversubscribed schools can make selection decisions without returning to academic criteria in several ways. "They can give priority to children with siblings at the school, or priority to children who live locally, or to children who come from particular feeder schools. The important point is that the procedure should be open, fair to all parents and children, inclusive of special needs and above all agreed locally."
Most of the paper, written by Labour education spokesman David Blunkett, beats a confident path through the minefields of party policy on grant-maintained schools, admissions and funding. Conceived at the height of the furore over party leader Tony Blair's decision to send his eldest son Euan eight miles away to the GM London Oratory school, at a time when returning opted-out schools to the local authority was official Labour policy, it could have been no more than a damage-limitation exercise.
However, Mr Blunkett's six-month consultation with LEAs and GM schools has given time to widen the remit and take a more overarching and imaginative approach to the local framework. "We believe the ideas set out in this paper will gain widespread acceptance among parents, governors and teachers alike. There may be a few on the extremes who believe that any change is unwelcome. But our proposals seek to build consensus," he said.
Potential minefields undoubtedly remain, particularly around current GM schools. Labour proposes every school could choose between community, aided, or foundation status, each getting at least 90 per cent of its budget delegated through the LEA (except in the case of some small schools which could choose to have the authority run more of their services and keep more of their budget). The Funding Agency for Schools will be phased out gradually over a period of years, largely because of complications in authorities where it has assumed some control.
All three types of school will also have LEA representatives on the governing body to provide "wider improvement in accountability".
Community schools would be based on county schools, with one extra parent governor. Aided schools would be similar to voluntary-aided schools, with a majority from the Church on the governing body, and would be alone in getting 85 per cent of capital funds direct from the Government, rather than 100 per cent through the LEA.
Foundation schools are described as a "new bridge" between powers available to secular and church schools, offering "a greater flexibility and devolution within the local management system as part of the local democratic framework. " Schools would control assets and staff, and the governing body would have at least five parents, two LEA members and three foundation governors serving fixed terms.
This is likeliest to attract GM schools, with governing bodies making the choice unless controversy demanded a parental ballot. Later changes could be possible, but not every year.
There may be dismay that the 100 per cent of capital funding delegated to foundation schools will come through the LEA. Moreover, a question mark remains over just how much of the running budget will be delegated. Although the ultimate intention is to run foundation schools in line with community and aided schools, Labour recognises the difficulties which would ensue if former GM schools effectively lost 10 per cent of their budgets overnight, and a "dialogue" is continuing over the details.
The worst fears of some GM schools may also be eased by the document's reiteration that schools are there to run themselves and that the role of the LEA is to plan on places and overall provision, supporting them in the drive to raise standards, publishing strategic development plans and, if necessary, calling inspectors into schools it deems at risk. This is a theme which Tony Blair will stress today, leading to the publication of a paper on the subject by Mr Blunkett this autumn.
KEY POINTS OF THE POLICY PAPER
* national target of 90 per cent of the schools' budget to be delegated from the LEA
* schools allowed to choose between three status options: community, aided and foundation
* funding based on a formula equitable for all pupils and schools within a community
* the Funding Agency for Schools will be phased out
* local accountability is to be strengthened through increased representation of parents and LEAs on all governing bodies, new elected parent representatives on local education committees, better information on school performance, and new initiatives on inspection and school improvement
* all schools should agree their admissions policies with the LEA, within a framework determined by the DFE. Where no agreement can be reached, final decision to be referred to independent arbitration which will advise the Secretary of State
* parental right of appeal to a local body independent of the LEA and school
* sensible and sensitive local partnership in planning school places.