Labour delivers on democracy

18th August 1995 at 01:00
In the long run up to Labour's latest education White Paper numerous public statements were made by David Blunkett on the party's attitude to the iniquitous Tory policy of grant-maintained schools. Party conference after party conference and in particular the one in 1994 over which David presided, had unanimously voted to end grant-maintained status, opting out and selection.

The statements made were quite clear. In contrast to the Tory policy of encouraging the competitive ethos in individual schools there would be a return to an education structure based in the local community, strengthening the local education authorities which had been undermined by the Tories. All schools would benefit from the strategic and supportive role of the LEAs. It is misleading to refer to such support as LEA "control". This is an anachronism since the introduction of local management of schools (which nobody now queries), and is a term being deliberately used by the Tories to confuse public opinion.

Above all there would be an end to the unfair and inequitably privileged financing of the grant-maintained schools at the expense of the maintained sector. As all the research has shown, schools have opted out mainly to lay their hands on funds which were not their due and which rightfully belonged to others. They also often received huge capital subventions while neighbouring "crumbling" schools were left without essential repairs.

It is a disgusting spectacle to behold - the few enjoying their greedy gains while the rest languish, deprived of resources. It is a policy of "I'm all right, Jack" - the essence of Tory competitive philosophy. Labour conferences decided that this was to cease and good riddance. It would be replaced by a system that treated all children fairly and equitably.

Part of the cleansing process would be the speedy demise of the Tory quango, the Funding Agency for Schools, a puffed-up balloon inflated on the assumption that the great majority of schools would opt out. What a gigantic miscalculation that was. Every prediction of the victory of opting-out was falsified by the stark facts. That policy lies in ruins as the overwhelming majority of schools rejected it despite a deluge of propaganda, enormous political pressure, and yes, the promise of filthy lucre.

Not enough tribute has been paid to the parents, governors, heads and staffs who refused to accept the bait and preferred to remain under the local democratic umbrella. They scorned a system which was so blatantly unfair and which elevated greed as a pedagogical principle.

Then there is the key area of admissions. These would be organised fairly and, for all schools, would have to be with the agreement of the LEA representing local democracy. Under the grant-maintained system there is frequently covert selection, as in the notorious case of the London Oratory, the school choosing the parents by interview. Meanwhile the Government baa-ed and bleated about parental choice.

On all these key issues the White Paper delivered and David Blunkett has to be congratulated on his success despite, by all accounts, some difficult negotiation. There will be a strengthened local democracy, equitable funding, and democratically controlled admissions with no selection and, of course, no return to the discredited 11-plus.

Some reservations, however, still exist. There are points of detail which have to be clarified. But here I wish to refer to two points of substance. First, the party is committed to the completion of comprehensive reorganisation. The comprehensive school is Labour's great revolutionary contribution to post-war education, aiming to create a system without selection in admission and providing a full educational entitlement for all children.

But the paragraph in the White Paper is unsatisfactory as it could allow parents in a locality where selection currently exists to defy the democratic electoral mandate for a national policy . Ending selection must mean all selection including current selection where it exists.

Second, I would query the need to have a separate sector (into which, strangely, all schools can opt), the portentously titled "Foundation Schools", mainly, it seems, for the purpose of accommodating some of the previously privileged grant-maintained schools, though I recognise the big improvement in the composition of their governing bodies.

Max Morris is chairman of the Socialist Education Association

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