Clever stuff verdict on Labour policy

30th June 1995 at 01:00
If there is consensus on first reading, the Labour Party document Diversity and Excellence, which sets out its policy on the future of grant-maintained schools, it is that it is a clever piece of work.

While the newspapers hailed the document as a U-turn on GM schools, Sir Robert Balchin, chairman of the Grant Maintained Schools Foundation was pulling up the white flag describing the policy as death "by a thousand cuts" and the anti-opting out groups, Parents Opposed to Opting Out and Local Schools Information, said they were satisfied that a Labour Government will mean the end of GM status.

Mr Blunkett has managed to get the Association of Heads of Grant-Maintained Heads and Graham Lane, chair of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities (and his local government colleagues in the shires) on side, even if Mr Lane's fellow members of the Socialist Education Association say the proposed foundation schools will become the GM in exile waiting for the kiss of a new Tory education minister to bring them back to life.

The document proposes three sorts of schools: community schools based on existing county schools with one extra parent governor; aided, based upon voluntary-aided schools (receiving 85 per cent of capital budget from the local education authority) but admissions to be agreed with the LEA; and foundation, which would hold the school building in trust and where the governing body would be the employer, though with extra LEA representation.

All three will have a minimum of 90 per cent of their budget delegated and an admission policy based upon parental preference agreed in consultation with the LEA. Schools would chose their own status after consultation with parents.

It was left to Roy Hattersley to show that the Conservative Party is not the only one displaying dissent within its ranks. Mr Hattersley may be viewed as coming from the geriatric wing of the party, but his fears, eloquently expressed in an Independent article, are not exclusive.

He accused David Blunkett of choosing to "breathe life into the corpse" of GM schools. He believes the new foundation schools will be as divisive as GM and run counter to the principle of comprehensive education and predicts that they will introduce the shiny-shoe selection process based upon social class. "Yes, we are sending Simon to the local foundation school," is the sort of remark he expects to hear over the tea cups in middle class homes.

Eamon O'Kane, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, agrees. "The proposed foundation schools are a formal acceptance of GM status. Sure they will not get preferential funding, but that was running out anyway, and the local education authority will have more say in the admissions policy, but the potential is to create a two tier system where foundation schools are viewed as different to community schools."

The NASUWT would like to see a more radical reworking of the relationship between LEAs and schools. The union supports a national staffing formula based upon the requirements of the national curriculum.

The Church schools, at present voluntary-aided or controlled, which make up a quarter of all schools, are very suspicious of the new aided schools. Hitherto, voluntary-aided schools have run their own admissions policy; the Labour Party proposals would mean agreement with the LEA.

Margaret Smart, director of the Catholic Education Service, is worried that present admissions based primarily upon children being baptised Catholic will be undermined. Her fears are based upon the uneasy relationship some Catholic schools have with their LEA. A number are withdrawing school transport, others - particularly in multi-cultural areas - are concerned that Catholic schools are "too white" and Mrs Smart is worried the wide catchment area church schools enjoy will be curtailed. "I will be asking the Labour Party to clarify how its sees the new partnership with church schools," she said.

At the press conference launching the document Mr Blunkett said he had no apologies over the title which evokes the White Paper Choice and Diversity by John Patten, the former education secretary. Indeed the document does unashamedly adopt the rhetoric of parent power and choice. Parents will have a greater role on governing bodies and will have a place on council education committees.

While some think parents prefer to let the professionals get on with the job and are not overly keen to spend their time on governing bodies, Graham Lane said Newham Council, east London, had found having parents on the education committee popular and useful.

The Labour Party is not abolishing grammar schools. Instead, parents within a school's catchment area will have the right to decide its future. Mr Lane is confident that LEAs will be able to see off grammar schools by the next century; others in the SEA are not so sure, saying Labour should have grasped the nettle if it is truly committed to comprehensive education.

The main sins of the slim document are of omission. Much of the detail is unclear: the actual mechanism of admissions, with a proposed independent tribunal for disputes, is not spelt out. John Bangs, assistant secretary education of the National Union of Teachers, said: "There are still pieces of the jigsaw missing. We are more interested in looking at how schools are to be funded and the role LEAs will play."

The Labour party plans a separate paper on the part LEAs will play in raising standards this autumn. And a member of the party's education team said Diversity and Excellence sets out the framework for the education system, with finer details for legislation being a matter for a White Paper. "There are still matters for discussion, for example the level of delegation of budgets, but we have no plans to put out a further paper on governance."

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