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Return to democracy beckons

Grant-maintained schools would have little to fear under a Labour regime, argues Christopher Price. Late in the day, grant-maintained schools are beginning to get interested in Labour education policy. We hear from its headmaster that Britain's best-known GM school, the Oratory, might leave the state system if Labour were elected; Sir Robert Balchin, the eminence grise of the Funding Agency for Schools, thinks that two or three others might want to go the same way.

But the argument is one on which ministers are strangely silent; Labour's concessions on GM status (that governors may keep ownership of the school as a "foundation school" and remain as employers of the staff) seem to have taken the sting out of the political argument and convinced the public at large that the GM sector will persist undisturbed under Labour.

Of course it will not. Labour proposes that the capital and current funds to GM schools will be channelled through local education authorities. So GM heads will be allowed the appearance of their old exclusivity and will, no doubt, continue to have their separate annual conference. But in reality they will play the same financial and selection rules as everyone else.

It is understandable that the public are confused. As can be deduced from the memoirs of Kenneth Baker and Lady Thatcher, GM schools were born of an alliance between two quite separate antipathies towards local councils' ownership of the state school system: Mrs Thatcher's gut hatred of local democracy and the Treasury's fiscal distrust of it. For 15 years the Treasury has been in the business of subjecting the whole public sector to "financial nationalisation". In education, it first got the go-ahead for rationalising further and higher education: it then wanted the same for schools. The Funding Agency for Schools was the first stage of this objective. The second involved removing all schools expenditure from local councils, an idea that almost went into the Conservatives' 1992 election manifesto.

With Mrs Thatcher gone, however, the political animus towards local councils was waning a little. John Major, after all, had been a Lambeth councillor himself in his youth. So the Conservatives balked at the Treasury plan for nationalising all schools and left the GM schools marooned in a rump quango. Some of them are already becoming irritated with the FAS as the original tide of capital funding comes to a halt. Now that local authorities are severely restricted as to the cash they have to hand over to all schools, the GM have little to lose from rejoining their colleagues in a local authority-run state sector.

Or rather a state sector where, in financial terms, the local council is little more than a banker. The experience of enforced budgetary devolution has been an important lesson to local councillors. No longer can they seek to favour some schools and penalise others quite in the way that some of them used to. If they want to influence things, they have to discuss, co-operate, network and cajole. Local councils are no longer, in any real sense, local authorities; they have become local education facilitators.

In this sense, local management of schools, Mr Baker's original preferred scheme over Mrs Thatcher's obsession with opting out, has been a resounding administrative success; it makes heads take responsibility for school leadership rather than alibi-ing problems away to the council; and it makes councillors and their officials become less obsessed with petty power and concentrate on more strategic planning.

So GM schools have little to fear from a new regime. Some will be irritated that local democratic representatives will now be able to pore over their governors' minutes and accounts; but this is no more than the sort of reasonable democratic accountability which Nolan is recommending any- way. Others will miss the FAS civil servant in York personally assigned to help them with their problems, though this proconsular system set up by FAS was always destined to be both inefficient and ineffective. Others will fear reprisals over capital allocations as local authorities try to address the capital starvation from which their own schools have suffered. But Peter Kilfoyle, David Blunkett's schools deputy, is discussing private finance initiative schemes which, facilitated by LEAs and put together on a much larger scale, have a better chance of success than any embarked upon by individual GM schools. Apart from Sir Robert's two or three, most GM schools will settle into the new system with scarcely a ripple.

Indeed, some may come to see the privilege of employing their own staff as something of an albatross. A recent Appeal Court reversal of an industrial tribunal decision (involving an aided school in Bedfordshire) could well substantially raise employment insurance premiums for schools which prefer to go it alone. There are a whole range of services which are best undertaken mutually rather than individually and most GM schools will come to recognise this.

So the abolition of FAS will not only be a welcome rolling back of the quango empire and a return to a local and democratic culture of providing education, it will also mark a turning point in the insidious process of financial nationalisation which Simon Jenkins has so eloquently described in his recent book Accountable to None: the Tory nationalisation of Britain (Penguin Pounds 7.99).

For this reason, Mr Blunkett should be warned that the Treasury will fight FAS abolition to the bitter end; he should have a short Bill ready for immediate introduction next year before the mandarins have time to regroup and preserve it.

Christopher Price is a former chairman of the Commons select committee on education.

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