High-risk stakes on the future

9th July 2004 at 01:00
What is there of real substance in Labour's five-year plan - its education election manifesto in all but name? Where is the meat - political or educational? In 1997 the party made limited but tangible promises: smaller infant class sizes, literacy targets and an end to grant-maintained status and assisted places.

Since then it has achieved much. Not every target has been met but spending levels are far above those dreamed of in 1997. There are significant improvements in schools, higher pupil attainment, increased recruitment of better-paid and better-trained teachers and a workforce agreement which faces problems but represents a significant consensus between government and the teaching profession.

But now Labour seems to be wooing voters with abstractions: more autonomy for schools, "personalised learning", "choice and diversity". When ministers talk like this they simply emphasise their remoteness from the real concerns of the electorate.

Parents are not necessarily keen on giving heads even greater powers.

Teachers certainly aren't. They may not demand "local democracy" but they rather like the idea of checks and balances - heads with freedom to do good things but a council you can go to if you are not happy with what a school is up to.

Nor is there great demand for the expansion of foundation status. Church and other foundation schools may be oversubscribed but granting the rest foundation status is not in itself going to make them more popular - or guarantee those that are popular the means to expand.

Few schools are clamouring for this largely symbolic change. Some pine for their former GM advantages. But there will be no return to laissez-faire in admissions while the school organisation committees and the admissions adjudicator continue. And it is difficult to imagine what additional freedom there is left for foundation schools to exercise in the curriculum now national requirements have been relaxed for everyone.

Ring-fencing the money local authorities must spend on schools will please heads but again is a technical change. Councils have lost most of the power to spend education money on other services anyway. Removing schools spending from the council tax calculations should reduce the funding fog.

Heads and governors will now be able to have three-year budgets and the responsibility for funding shortfalls should be clearer.

The 200 glossy new academies promised are a substantial commitment - so substantial that there is a danger Labour will not be able to afford to improve much else. They are unlikely to ensure that all parents have a good local school to rely on within five years - Tony Blair's response to the scramble promised by the Conservatives with more competition, more selection and independent school fees for the lucky few.

Like Labour's targets and ill-fated fresh start policy, it is high-risk, and not just for the politicians. Five years is not long in school improvement, particularly when some academies will take that to get off off the ground.

Academies are a massive investment where it is needed most. But even they will need time to improve. Heads and staff in such schools could find themselves under intolerable pressure from ministers and sponsors for instant results to justify such expenditure.

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