Anguished affair of GM and the party

23rd June 1995 at 01:00
The Labour party's new policy document seeks the middle ground on admissions, funding and opt-outs. Grant-maintained status, the Tory education totem, has spooked the Labour party since its inception six years ago.

At a local government conference in Brighton earlier this year, David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, was asked the same question at five separate meetings: namely, is his party going to abolish GM schools and return them to the bosom of local education authorities?

And Tony Blair's decision to send his son to the London Oratory GM school was treated as a gross betrayal by party faithful in the education world.

Only 5 per cent of schools in England and Wales have voted to opt out. And the numbers applying to do so remain a trickle. Mrs Thatcher had imagined the new-found parent power would be as popular as council house sales, and GM schools would transform the education system. They weren't and they haven't. So why has the Labour party allowed itself to become so embroiled in a policy its traditionalists argue could have been brushed off as failure and allowed to wither on the vine?

The education system Labour will inherit if it wins the next election is bewilderingly diverse, with the Government's policy of extending choice through the market place adding to the previous mix of state and independent schools, council and church schools, selective and grammar schools. To that is added a new tranche of largely autonomous GM schools and a growing number of specialist schools.

This week's document is therefore seen as crucial by both traditionalists and modernisers in an area of policy which to many is a touchstone issue. It marks the culmination of six years of anguish.

Before the last election the Labour party attempted to tread delicately while appearing tough in its opposition. It hoped that the threat of a change of government would be enough to make schools think twice before rushing into a ballot.

After Labour's defeat there was an air of panic and a certain craziness in the air. One wheeze, used by schools in Bedfordshire, for example, was to opt out en masse to free themselves from their Conservative education authority.

Meanwhile the Labour party feared a flood of ballots as those schools who had put their plans on hold went ahead. As five years of Tory rule stretched into the distance, Jack Straw, then Labour's education spokesman, felt it was necessary to address the "reality" of GM schools.

He called a meeting at the House of Commons with a demoralised set of council chairs of education. What he had to tell them did not go down well. A national executive document warned against being openly hostile to parents who had decided to opt out. This was taken as a shift to a softer stance.

Soon after, Mr Straw moved on to become environment spokesman and Ann Taylor took his place, bringing with her a more robust stand against GM status.

At the following Labour conference the three main teacher unions (which had been critical of the inequalities of GM) were mollified by her tough talking. "Opposition to opting out has to be on the basis that it runs counter to our philosophy of what education is about," she said.

And the ambiguities of her White Paper, Opening the Doors to a Learning Society, also gave solace to local government activists. It said Labour would abolish the GM quango, the Funding Agency for Schools, and would return the schools to the "local democratic framework". It said schools (through local management) now had considerable autonomy managing their affairs and are creating new forms of co-operation within the framework of the local education authority.

The election of Tony Blair to the party leadership shadowed Mrs Taylor's big moment, however. He gave the paper a rather different spin, and in television interviews gave the first hint that GM schools, albeit in a different form, would have a future under Labour. Mr Blair was going to put education at the heart of Labour's plans for national renewal. But he decided against having Mrs Taylor at the heart of education; she was replaced by David Blunkett.

After a bumpy start over VAT on private education for Mr Blunkett (he had floated the idea and Mr Blair had knocked it on the head), it was the GM issue that inevitably proved most controversial. The Blairs had decided to send Euan to the London Oratory; Mr Blunkett was left to justify the decision.

Threats of torn-up membership cards may have followed but Mr Blair, who has successfully dumped his party's hallowed Clause Four, did not turn a hair. And his education spokesman has worked hard to gain a meaningful consultation with all sides of the argument.

One opt-out head who was impressed by his performance said: "He was very keen to listen to us and impressed us as an imaginative and flexible thinker. He is driven by ensuring a good education for all and isn't hidebound by traditional notions."

The GM issue is important because the argument hinges on the extent to which local education authorities have control over education. In the long run the Labour party's decision to increase schools' devolved budgets to a minimum of 90 per cent may be more of a threat. The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers has already warned against this.

The local authorities are also bound to be concerned at what they will see as a further reduction in their role. It will now be Mr Blunkett's job to convince them that their changing role - upholding the rights of the consumer and the community - is not only worthwhile, but the best way of guaranteeing that they have a voice in education.

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