Confronting choice

9th December 1994 at 00:00
Though the Blair family's choice of school has now been overtaken by the Government's far worse dilemmas as a subject for furious debate, it still deserves unpicking because of its impact on Labour party education policy.

Which came first, the Labour leader's decision to send his son to a grant-maintained Catholic school some miles from his (present) home, or his decision to modify party policy on the issue as put forward by former shadow spokesman Ann Taylor? Or are they both of a piece with Tony Blair's conviction that he must win the votes of parents like himself who believe in the right to shop around for quality in the state system, and that Labour must confront such issues to succeed?

Whether he anticipated quite the furore that this direct approach would spark off is open to question. Although Tory cries of a U-turn are a little wide of the mark, the grant-maintained schools must feel that their chances of a reprieve under a Labour Government are now much brighter, while the reaction within the Labour party, the local authorities, and many of their schools, is correspondingly bitter.

In fact, much of the internal party fury began from the moment that Tony Blair, newly elected as leader, hijacked the July launch of Ann Taylor's education "white paper" and put his own gloss on it. The row continued at the party conference in October. Where she was saying that putting the GM schools within the "local democratic framework" meant handing them back to the local education authorities, he was insisting that he had no intention of turning the clock back to l979, and that he wanted to discuss the nature of independence and governance with GM school heads.

Now that David Blunkett is his education spokesman, with a similar firm commitment to sound teaching standards, discipline, order and parental involvement, he is also taking something closer to the Blair line on GM schools. He would expect a few schools to opt back in under a Labour government, and will talk to the rest about future status, with more equitable funding, after the abolition of the Funding Agency.

What happens beyond that remains fuzzy. Though there is a growing consensus within local government that you can't turn the clock back to l987, let alone l979, there is also wide agreement that schools brought back into a local framework, must as a minimum, be subject to strategic planning and a common admissions policy.

This would be bitterly opposed by many GM schools, and especially the very one chosen by the Blairs. The London Oratory notoriously applied its own admissions criteria as a voluntary-aided school in the Inner London Education Authority, flouting both the authority and the Westminster Archdiocese. Its policies always caused ill-feeling among the neighbouring comprehensives it creamed, though up to now these have not been in Islington.

The Blairs did have a difficult choice to make. Though some romanticised rhetoric over the past week insists that they have killed single-handed the Labour ideal of the neighbourhood comprehensive, London parents in particular have always, where they could, sent their children across the borough boundaries in search of choice, and the break up of ILEA has not changed the pattern. Since the commitment to a Roman Catholic, single-sex boys' school has to be respected (though the latter is open to question), that left just one local Catholic school with exam results below the national average.

But Islington has always been possessive about its schools, whatever their reputation, and local activists who point to Tony Blair's commitment to community ideals suggest that if a community leader puts his children into local schools, other middle-class parents will follow, helping to lever up standards as David Blunkett has done in Sheffield. And there isn't much doubt that the London Oratory is as selective and elitist as you can get while still being officially a state comprehensive.

Mr Blair's personal commitment to choice and diversity may well be an election winner. But it is not yet clear how far he can take his party with him, or how it will all fit in with a reformed admissions policy.

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