Heads welcome changed stance

23rd June 1995 at 01:00
The Labour party's new policy document seeks the middle ground on admissions, funding and opt-outs. News of Labour's proposed solution to the grant-maintained question was being welcomed this week by heads of opted-out schools and local authority leaders.

Reactions from the first flagship GM schools ranged from guarded optimism to extravagant praise for David Blunkett and Tony Blair.

Details of the policy have been leaking out over the past week, and have been condemned as a U-turn by many on the Left, and - with the exception of Doug McAvoy, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers - by the teacher unions.

The consensus among the GM heads appears to be that Labour's plans represent a recognition of the achievements of opted-out schools, and an acceptance of their role.

The King's School in Grantham, Lincolnshire, was among the first 18 to opt out in 1989. The head, Derek Lee, said he was "very encouraged to see the freedom given to GM schools being extended to others". The proposals, he suggested, heralded a new era of pragmatism and tolerance. "This shows that if elected, the Labour party would take an undogmatic and practical approach rather than a confrontational one."

He would have no problem, he said, with the idea of taking on two local authority governors: "This would reflect a local interest group without the danger of becoming dominated by it." Perhaps predictably, he attributed Labour's change of heart to good work done by opted-out schools: "It's certainly not weight of numbers - its the fact that they want to extend GM practices to other schools." Mr Lee said he was not particularly worried about the levelling of funding - "The big differences in funding between grant-maintained and maintained schools have now gone and I'd be happy to work on a common funding basis. My main concern is the differences in funding between one LEA and another."

John McIntosh, whose school, the London Oratory, has been at the eye of the storm over Labour's opting-out policy since Tony Blair decided to send his son there, suggested that the party's volte-face was inevitable: "It's so obvious that grant-maintained status and the LMS scheme have worked well. Any politician, from whatever party, cannot but come to the conclusion that it would be very unwise to undo the good work and go back to the pre-1989 situation."

Mr McIntosh also insisted that his school had nothing to fear from changed guidelines on admissions. "Even if the Labour party had reverted to the pre-1989 situation, our admission arrangements are the same now as they were when we were with the the local authority as a voluntary aided school." The Oratory admits pupils on the basis of Catholic background and "other factors, such as looking for parents and boys committed to the sort of education we offer".

The school selects pupils by interview and does not necessarily give preference to local boys. The fact that the Blairs live eight miles from the school is one reason why his choice has been criticised.

Cecil Knight, head of Small Heath school in Birmingham and chair of the Grant-Maintained Schools Advisory Committee, was broadly optimistic about the proposals, but expressed reservations about the idea that GM schools would have to take two LEA governors. "Reaction to this will vary because while in some parts of the country LEA governors have left their political hats behind, others have taken a highly political stance and have worked as a caucus within the governing body."

Meanwhile the leaders of the main local authority associations welcomed the new policy. Sir Jeremy Beecham, chairman of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and Lady Farrington, chair of the Association of County Councils, backed the proposed arrangements for admissions and common funding and for the recognition for the need for a single framework embracing all schools.

But the Liberal Democrats warned that Labour's plans would provoke a "headlong rush" for opting out. Don Foster, the Lib-Dem education spokesman, said before the Labour document was published that the proposed new foundation schools would still enjoy advantages over LEA schools.

The Liberal Democrats intend to return GM schools to a "new-style light touch" LEA. Schools would enjoy the same freedom to manage their budget as GM schools.

The local authority will be responsible for admissions, allocation of funding and will have a role in monitoring standards.

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