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Penny for politicians' Oratory

If the Government were to get a penny each time the London Oratory school appeared in Hansard, the parliamentary record, it would have no trouble funding homework clubs, reducing class sizes and giving teachers a pay rise.

The Tories have got good mileage from the grant-maintained school Tony Blair chose for his son, Euan. While shadow education secretary Stephen Dorrell spoke to councils in Bristol, his schools deputy, Angela Browning, evoked its name in some routine education authority-bashing in the Commons.

Mrs Browning led for the Opposition in a debate on the Government's White Paper, Excellence in Schools. She questioned the role local authorities will have in approving and monitoring schools' targets and education development plans, saying it would be nonsensical for high-performing schools, many grant-maintained, to report to poorly-performing councils.

"The Oratory gets 70 per cent A to C grade passes at GCSE. Its LEA, which will now have to approve or disapprove what it does, is Hammersmith and Fulham which presides over a 30 per cent A to C grade pass rate at GCSE. It would be better if Hammersmith and Fulham submitted its plans to the Oratory so that standards might be improved," she said.

She said the Government's consultation exercise on the White Paper will mean the churning out of vast screeds of paper, more bureaucracy and the return of state planning. She said the White Paper was riddled with more powers for the Department for Education and Employment and local authorities.

Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, found this criticism somewhat rich: "I listened to the speech by the Hon Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs Browning) with a mixture of incredulity and admiration I the Education Reform Act 1988, contained no fewer than 500 additional powers for the Secretary of State. If ever there were centralising tendencies they were demonstrated by the previous government."

Mr Foster said he welcomed the White Paper, but he did have some reservations. He said he did not believe the money released by the abolition of the Assisted Places Scheme would be enough to fund the Government's planned class size reductions. He also asked Stephen Byers, school standards minister, if he had any plans to re-establish the minimum space standards in schools and nurseries.

No immediate answer was given to that, but Mr Byers did clarify the role local authorities will play in improving schools.

He said: "If there are difficulties, the local authority will have the opportunity to issue a formal warning and request a plan of action from the school. If doubts continue and it becomes clear that effective action is not being taken, the local authority should be able to invite the Office for Standards in Education to conduct a further inspection. It should be able to appoint additional governors and ultimately, it should have the power to withdraw budget delegation."

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