Ready to grasp the reins

Gillian Shephard is characteristically modest about her achievements, but refuses to countenance defeat, reports Geraldine Hackett. Labour's David Blunkett has the post of Education Secretary within his reach, however

As a man with high expectations of being a senior member of the next government, David Blunkett has to check any inclination to assume the prize is assured.

However, there is no concealing his weariness at Labour's 18 years on the back benches and his eager anticipation of a new regime at the Department for Education and Employment. All that now stands in the way of the dream being realised is an election campaign long enough to see Labour's lead eroded, and a fickle electorate.

What has been unsettling so far is that education has not become an election issue, despite the fact that both Tony Blair and John Major insist it is the key priority. The opinion polls also appear to confirm that voters are more concerned about education than anything except the health service.

The silence may be due to many voters' perception that neither the Labour party nor the Conservatives are proposing to do anything too radical.

In fact, Gordon Brown's promise that Labour will accept the Conservatives' projections on public expenditure for its first two years in office inevitably curtails any ambitious schemes. Depending on inflation, Mr Blunkett accepts that in the first months in office he might have to find ways of reducing spending on schools.

"We are making a virtue out of the fact that we are not going to be able to do very much," he says.

"There is nothing that can be done about this year's education budget and the following year any redistribution of money between departments has to be within the existing total. The exercise could produce money for education, but that cannot be banked on.

"I have to be as tough as old boots when it comes to spending commitments, " he says. There is little doubt that Mr Blunkett has fallen in with Labour's modernisers. The former leader of a left-wing Sheffield city council recently told a Ruskin College audience that it was no longer an option to use the tax system simply to spread wealth more equally between the haves and have-nots.

The heady days of municipal socialism are long gone and Mr Blunkett is now ready to settle for a slower pace. "It may take two terms to achieve what we want and I may not be there for the second," he says. In such reckoning there may be an unconscious acceptance that Mr Blair represents the agenda of a younger generation.

The only serious new money will be the proceeds of a windfall tax on the utilities. The figures are disputed, but Labour has hopes of Pounds 3 billion to fund a programme to tackle youth unemployment. There are to be extra funds to provide for a rapid expansion in further education and an amendment to the 16-hour rule that inhibits the unemployed from taking courses in case they forfeit benefit.

When it comes to schools, Mr Blunkett believes he will be able to enthuse and energise teachers by the force of his own enthusiasm for raising standards.

"It will be like a breath of fresh air through the system," he says with what could be an ill-founded optimism. He cites as evidence the response from the profession to the proposals that have come from Professor Michael Barber's literacy commission.

The powers central government has taken to direct both the content and teaching of the curriculum are not about to be relinquished by a Labour education secretary. Within the Department for Education and Employment, the existing team that deals with failing schools would be strengthened and renamed the Standards and Effectiveness Unit. It will be the task of the unit to identify education action areas and assist schools in those areas to improve their results.

Local education authorities know they are in for a further financial squeeze. The only consolation is that while Labour is intent on pushing the share of the education budget that goes directly to schools from 85 per cent to 90 per cent, the Conservatives have even more draconian measures in mind.

Likewise the teacher unions. Labour will create a General Teaching Council, but the unions are not going to get direct representation and they are unlikely to command a majority vote.

According to Mr Blunkett, he does not intend to become distracted by arguments over structures of schools. However, the Education Bill he intends to introduce would have to set out the framework for translating grant-maintained schools into foundation schools which would increase parents' power and give local authorities two representatives on the governing body.

In future, such schools would lose any financial advantages. The concession Labour appears to be ready to make is that foundation schools will retain control over what pupils they admit, subject to the agreement of the local authority. In difficult cases, there is to be resort to independent arbitration. "No school should feel crushed by their local authority," he says.

The plans for government are mapped out. There would be a White Paper followed by consultation and legislation. The autumn Education Bill would have to encompass everything from nursery education (Labour will scrap vouchers, but expand places) to student loan repayments.

Attention has been paid to the fine detail, but there may not be too much on offer to lift the morale of teachers. There is no doubting Mr Blunkett's conviction that Labour is poised to transform attitudes and practice, but without any extra resources he risks being met with cynicism in the profession.

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