Dorrell runs gauntlet of council disapproval

25th July 1997 at 01:00
The new White Paper was debated by central and local government last week. Clare Dean reports from the Council of Local Education Authorities' conference, while Frances Rafferty listened in to the MPs' arguments.

For a man who appears to be less than keen on local government, it was perhaps an odd decision.

Shadow education secretary Stephen Dorrell - forced to choose between addressing Parliament in the debate on the Excellence in Schools White Paper or the Council of Local Education Authorities - opted for Bristol, not London.

Mr Dorrell, who has made clear his opposition to the Government's plans to give councils a bigger role in education, probably expected a hostile reception and duly received one. Despite an initially confident, poised and polished public debut in his new job, he was left stumbling over his words during some hard questioning from his audience. (An indication, perhaps, of the value of the civil servants' briefing.) His description of the Government's plans for education as overly prescriptive had them laughing in the aisles and muttering the likes of "Who is he to talk?" And for a while, as he sought to attack David Blunkett's "relentless statist vision", it seemed Mr Dorrell had forgotten the events of May 1 which have left him languishing on the Opposition benches.

"I know it will sound strange from a government which itself was subject to the same charge, but the fact that we didn't always appear to respond to that argument didn't mean that we didn't recognise the force of that argument. " So there you are.

Mr Dorrell, health secretary until the Tory defeat at the general election, was left reminiscing about his halcyon days in power and wondering what the medical profession would have thought if he had tried to offer advice on the treatment of illness.

"Politicians and administrators in both health and education should always remember that they do not treat patients or teach children - that is the task of the professional staff of the service," he told the conference.

"We are all entitled to hold the professions to account for the results that they deliver - but responsibility for delivering ex-cellence in schools rests with the teaching profession and it is no part of the responsibility of ministers to tell them how to set homework."

Nor was it right, he thought, for the Government to set limits on class size, to make plans for nursery expansion subject to agreement of early-years forums or to force schools to submit annual plans to their local authority.

All this from a man who but a short time ago was a member of a government which introduced the national curriculum and laid down the number of days a teacher should work.

Mr Dorrell is just three weeks into his new job and still getting to grips with his brief. Privately he has been suggesting that the good thing about being in opposition is that it gives politicians more time to think about what they are doing.

He is even talking about seeking information from academics and practitioners - although that did not necessarily mean agreeing with them or heeding their advice.

The fact that Mr Dorrell attended the conference - widely considered to be one of the most important events in the education calendar - must be viewed as proof of how seriously he is taking his new role.

Some of his ideas do not go down well with the local authorities, however. Particularly unpopular is his notion of what a community school - one of the three new breeds of schools envisaged by Labour - actually is.

He does not believe that catchment areas matter and his claim that "grant-maintained schools would see themselves as community schools as they are supported by the people who use them" prompted widespread murmurings among delegates who still dislike the opted-out sector.

Try telling that to the parents in Bromley who are still struggling to find places for their children in the London borough's schools, he was told. Competition for places in Bromley, where schools operate partial selection, is intense - with one in five pupils estimated to come from outside the borough.

"Speak to your colleagues in Bromley, ask them about their caseload and they will tell you parents want to educate their children in local schools," urged Gavin Moore, a councillor from the London borough of Lewisham.

"They don't want the status quo - grant-maintained secondaries with partial selection creaming off the most able children in south London and north-west Kent and locking their doors to local children in Bromley."

On a broader note, asked what lessons he and the Conservatives might have learnt since the general election, Mr Dorrell said: "Watch this space."

What the CLEA conference agreed the Government should do

* Continue current Section 11 funding and transfer responsibility for it from the Home Office to the Department for Education and Employment;

* consult urgently with LEAs about the continuing problems arising from the "Greenwich judgment" on cross-borough-boundary admissions;

* consult with LEAs on admission appeals;

* secure changes to the Private Finance Initiative to allow small and medium-sized schemes such as school improvements and extensions;

* outline its plans for repairing school buildings;

* establish local planning arrangements for post-16 education similar to those being introduced for early years;

* review early-years funding to reflect the true costs to local authorities;

* legislate to give local authorities explicit and unequivocal powers to secure the provision of sufficient youth work in partnership with the voluntary sector.

* CLEA also decided to widen participation in the conference and look at the possibility of granting speaking and voting rights to church authorities, governors and parents.

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