Report of U-turn greatly exaggerated

Robert Balchin

Emboldened by newspaper headlines such as "Labour's dU-turn on opting out" and "Blair Happy to Keep Tory Schools Policies", grant-maintained school heads have been tearing up their application forms for the 1997 intake of Office for Standards in Education registered inspectors and delaying their retirement parties until well into the next century.

Okay, it looked as if a couple of superannuated local councillors would be back on each governing body. Yes, the Department for Education and Employment would fund schools directly without the intercession of the Funding Agency for Schools. Fine, there would be some spirited dialogue on admissions, but heads could put up with this because Labour seemed to be promising that they could keep the prize that they had won by opting out: freedom from LEA control.

Then, after the softening-up leaks, came the publication of Labour's document Diversity and Excellence with its encouragingly Pattenesque title. (I, incidentally, have a rare copy of the first edition, swiftly corrected, in which "grammar schools" is spelt with an E!) You do not have to wade through the rhetoric for long, however, to discover that two years after the election of a Labour government, GM schools would be deprived of virtually all the freedom granted to them in 1988 and would effectively be abolished. This is a view echoed by Graham Lane, education chairman of the Labour-dominated Association of Metropolitan Authorities, who agrees that the new Blair policy "gets rid of GM schools".

Labour's plans include the following (page numbers refer to the Labour document): * All funding for GM schools will be routed through LEAs (page 10) and schools will be accountable to LEAs for it. Thus all chances of a transparent commonnational funding formula will be lost.

* LEAs will keep back 10 per cent of annual funding and spend it on "programmes of school improvement" (page 4), "vital joint areas of provision" (page 8), "performance information" (page 9), "parent forums, parent liaison officers" (page 9), and "quality advice and support" (page 8). In short, GM schools will have to cut spending on the curriculum and make teachers redundant in order to provide jobs for the boys at town and county halls.

* Two LEA appointees will be made to GM governing bodies (page 15). LEAs "will be identifying weakness and rooting it out" (page 14). So all the time-wasting political point-scoring of the council chamber will return to governing body meetings; good governors will melt away, bored and frustrated.

* Admissions to GM schools will be within a "consultative partnership" with the LEA (page 11) which will also plan school places (page 5): "all schools will be subjected to the same arrangements in this regard"(page 6). This, of course, enables pupils to be directed away from GM schools and paves the way for the abolition of selection.

* GM schools will be subjected to "regular local inspections" (appendix 3). This is analogous to the Tesco management reporting on independent corner shops.

* The enforced change of name to "foundation schools" (page 15) sets the seal on the abolition of GM schools and sums up what Labour has in store for them: the end of directly-granted funding and the reimposition of local government control of their cash. Who can doubt that before the piper is paid, the tune will be called?

Twenty per cent of secondary pupils and a growing number of primary children are currently in GM schools, which serve some million and a quarter parents. The latter will vote in marginal constituencies in the next general election. In this document, and the leaks which heralded it, Labour has attempted to deceive them that GM schools will be preserved. In fact the clock will be turned back and not just to the detriment of GM schools. At the moment LEA schools have an excellent weapon to wield when dealing with recalcitrant and parsimonious local authorities: they can threaten to opt out.

If Labour's plans ever come to fruition all state schools, their pupils, teachers and parents, will be the losers.

Sir Robert Balchin is chairman of the Grant-Maintained Schools Foundation

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