Labour faces policy dilemma

28th October 1994 at 00:00
Labour is expected to embark on a major re-shaping of its education policy in the wake of the appointment of a new shadow Cabinet. The scale of the revision will depend on the influence exerted by those in the Blair camp who would like to see the "white paper" agreed at this month's conference scrapped.

Labour's leader has barely concealed his antipathy to its approach and he is known to want a greater emphasis on raising achievement and measures to judge schools. That dissatisfaction is reflected in the decision not to re-appoint Ann Taylor to lead the education team, despite the fact that she had diligently overseen consultation on the policy paper. She is considered to have been too heavily influenced by the teacher unions.

However, David Blunkett, who leads the new team, will be aware of the sensitivities involved in disregarding policy that has the approval of the party's conference.

His instinct is more likely to be to retain the bones of the document, Opening doors to a learning society, while putting a new emphasis on improving schools, particularly in deprived inner city areas.

The problem areas for Labour are what it should do on national testing; the future of grant-maintained schools and the reform of sixth-form courses.

As a proponent of local government, Mr Blunkett will want to see the re-integration of grant-maintained schools within the local system.

He does, however, accept that the party has to examine in detail the way in which that will be implemented.

The issue of testing would be easier for the party to tackle if credible systems of measuring the added value of schools had been developed.

Mr Blunkett is in favour of measures to assess the performance of institutions.

The report of the Commission on Social Justice, in part produced by David Miliband, Blair's head of policy, provides few insights into the kind of schools policy being looked for from the party's modernisers.

It commends the Conservative reforms of the national curriculum and financial delegation to schools, while condemning the creeping return to selection of pupils at age 11.

However, MPs on the modernising wing, like Margaret Hodge, former leader of Islington council, would favour policy that is tougher on schools and puts the concerns of parents at the centre. Her view is that schools have to be open about their results and that parents need information in order to be able to compare schools.

Such measures to make schools accountable would run in parallel with changes to improve the status of teachers.

In his speeches, Mr Blair emphasises the importance of standards, discipline and the need for tough action against poor teachers.

Labour has yet to unveil its policy on higher and further education and it could use the document in order to signal changes in other areas.

There are, however, dangers inherent in reopening the debate. Mr Blair may not have the support within the Parliamentary party for a wide-scale unravelling.

Mr Blunkett is reputed to be skilled at achieving consensus, but that may not be what Mr Blair has in mind.

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