Rebel Hattersley is slapped down

Geraldine Hackett

Rumbles of discontent over GM school policy, promises of smaller classes and links to the superhighway . . . education was a controversial issue at Labour's annual meeting. Geraldine Hackett opens a two-page report.

The promise that a future Labour government will take a tougher line against selection than previous administrations came this week from the party's education spokesman, David Blunkett, as part of his rebuttal of charges that his plans for grant-maintained schools will lead to a two-tier system.

The focus of discontent with Labour's proposal to create foundation and community schools was Roy Hattersley, the former deputy leader, who maintains foundation schools will be grant-maintained schools in exile, taking in middle-class children and able to attract extra funds.

His intervention in what was one of the more acrimonious of this week's debates at Labour's conference in Brighton won him applause from the floor and a rebuke from Mr Blunkett.

Labour's education spokesman pointed out that the party's 1992 manifesto, drafted when Mr Hattersley had been part of the leadership, did not contain proposals to deal with selection.

"Those who do not come up with solutions, should not turn on those who have," said Mr Blunkett, who departed from his prepared text to insist on his commitment to the creation of genuine comprehensives.

Mr Blunkett argued that foundation schools would encompass church schools and schools with philanthropic foundations. One third of GM schools were formerly aided or controlled schools.

The existence of such schools did not imply a hierarchy, he said. Under a Labour government, schools would not be allowed to select on the basis of exam results and neither would they be allowed to select on the basis of interviews. (The London Oratory, the school chosen by Tony Blair for his son selects pupils on the basis of interviews with parents and children).

Labour intends to abolish the Funding Agency for Schools and direct money to schools through local education authorities. Mr Blunkett argued it was now inappropriate to talk of local education authorities controlling schools, but local authorities would have a role in strategic planning and would be required to offer support to schools in improving standards.

The immediate step to be taken by a Labour government would be to end the financial advantages of GM schools. "On the very first day of a Labour government all the extra funding and all the extra capital would cease, " said Mr Blunkett.

The conference voted in favour of adopting the new policy set out in Diversity and Excellence and the motion expressing opposition to foundation schools was heavily defeated. The defeated motion had also included calls for the restoration of student grants and other commitments on post-16 education which Mr Blunkett reckoned would have cost around Pounds 10 bn.

While it would appear that among activists the policy on GM schools remains a grievance, the party has settled the issue of what it would do in government. It has been an embarrassment for the leader ever since the Blairs decided to send their son to a GM school. In his speech, Mr Blair urged the party to put an end to arguments about structure. He wanted to lift sights to classrooms where every child has a laptop; where teachers are properly rewarded and where failure is not tolerated.

And while he was as adamant as his education spokesman that schools will not be allowed to select, he did raise the prospect of specialist schools. Schools, he said, might specialise in science, music, design or maths.

Both Mr Blair and Mr Blunkett resolutely made no spending commitments apart from the promise to divert the money spent on assisted places into reducing the size of classes in infants schools and departments.

However, the education team is examining the prospects for changing the formula that determines the level of grant for education to local councils through the standard spending assessment. Labour intends to investigate the impact of the allowance made for areas with high housing and employment costs.

Work is also being done on the local management formula to find ways that would mean schools are not financially penalised because they have staff on higher salaries than the average.

However, it was the distrust from delegates at the motives behind the grant-maintained policy that produced the strongest commitment for some years from the party leadership that schools will be encouraged to be properly comprehensive. Existing grammar schools will not be abolished, but there will be provision for parents to ballot on those schools becoming comprehensive.

* Labour is winning the battle on its vulnerable policy areas of parental choice and opt out schools, says the 150,000-strong Association of Teachers and Lecturers on publishing the results of a Harris poll of more than 1,000 people.

Findings showed that just over half of those surveyed believed Labour would offer parents as much choice in education as the Government, while another 52 per cent thought a future Labour administration would treat grant-maintained schools fairly. Only 36 per cent felt that private schools would be threatened if the party came to power and less than a third said Labour would reduce parental choice and discriminate against opt-out schools. However, one in five did not know whether a Labour government would prove hostile to private and GM schools.

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