How the manifesto will translate

9th May 1997 at 01:00
Mandarins at the Department for Education and Employment have begun to identify the practical difficulties of translating the manifesto into a programme for government, writes Geraldine Hackett.

The key areas for the White Paper have been mapped out and officials have started the process of sorting out the technical problems involved in transferring the semi-autonomo us grant-maintained schools into a locally planned framework.

The proposals as set out in Labour's paper, Diversity and Excellence, provide for the creation of three kinds of school. However, there is no detail about the way in which schools either choose or are directed into the categories of community, aided or foundation. In effect, aided and foundation schools will own their assets and community schools are not dissimilar to existing local authority schools.

The only schools that will have to act are the 1,100 in the GM sector. The urgency with which they will have to accept changes depends on such factors as the speed with which the Funding Agency for Schools is dismantled.

The Education and Employment Secretary, David Blunkett, intends abolishing the quango which has taken strategic decisions on the siting and expansion of GM schools. Its demise creates problems in the short term in areas like Kent, Essex and Gloucestershire, where most schools have opted out. The removal of the local education authorities' funding in the wake of schools going GM has forced the councils to reduce their education service.

Such headaches fall to Peter Owen, director general for schools. As well as making plans for integrating the GM sector, he will already have prepared a range of options on the means to redeem Labour's pledge to reduce the size of infant classes.

In theory, the Government could require by regulation that no class for that age group should exceed 30. It may be that the Government would prefer to rely on the local authorities to direct funds to the lower end of primary schools and thereby reduce class size more gradually. The current local government funding system allows councils to choose their own priorities on spending, but the Government could require them to target specific sums.

The difficult task in this area is conjuring the funding. In terms of the o18 billion it costs to run the country's schools, it does not amount to major expenditure. However, it is unlikely it could be achieved by merely transferring the costs of the Assisted Places Scheme into the local authority budget. There will be no saving from abolishing the scheme for 12 months and the extra funding will only accrue gradually as the scheme is phased out over seven years.

The central ambition of Mr Blunkett is the drive to raise standards in schools. To this end, there to is be the dedicated unit headed by Michael Barber, that reports to the minister of state, Stephen Byers. The unit will be expected to devise strategies that fulfil the promise to create education areas. As yet, Mr Blunkett has not revealed the basis on which schools would be zoned as in need of action or the level of resouces that will be available.

The other target by which the Government will be judged is the effectiveness of measures to take young unemployed people off benefit and get them into work. The programme will be co-ordinated within the DFEE by Nick Stuart, director general for employment and lifetime learning.

Among the fortunes Mr Blunkett has inherited, is a department that has been radically re-structured by the mandarin in overall charge, Michael Bichard, permanent secretary since 1995. There remains the task of directing the department's efforts more directly at schools, a specific remit that has been given to the new standards and effectiveness unit.

However, the days of managing the often acriminious split between the DFEE and the Number Ten Policy Unit may have only temporarily come to an end. The policy unit is to be headed by David Miliband who is likely to have as strong views on education as his predecessor Norman Blackwell.

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