Labour needled over school status

13th February 1998 at 00:00
Frances Rafferty reports on the latest row to upset the progress of the School Standards and Framework Bill

If you can't win the vote, at least you can make your adversaries squirm - this appears to be the strategy of Don Foster, Liberal Democrat education spokesman.

MPs on the committee debating the School Standards and Framework Bill were last week discussing the three new categories proposed for state schools: community, foundation and aided. Mr Foster's opposition was to foundation status which will replace the grant-maintained sector.

He said that foundation status would perpetuate the division and chaos that had been created by GM schools. He added that most of the local education authorities of the Labour MPs on the committee believed that only two categories - community and aided - were necessary.

Foundation schools will differ from community and aided schools by owning their buildings and assets and acting as their own admission authorities.

The Labour members called the status a compromise following the bitter battles caused by opting-out votes.

GM schools will become foundation schools, but their governing bodies will subsequently be able to opt for aided or community status. After a year, all other schools will be able to debate their category. Where 20 per cent of parents disagree with the governing body's decision a ballot on status will be triggered.

Mr Foster and his colleague Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat higher education spokesman, condemned GM schools, saying they had benefited from bribes by the previous government at the expense of other schools.

Stephen Dorrell, the Conservative education spokesman, replied that the GM sector had been a resounding success, and the exam results proved it.

Stephen Byers, the school standards minister, said that his Government would learn from the GM experience and would seek to extend the benefits of self-management and greater control of budgets. He added that his concern was for the children in GM schools, and he accused the Liberal Democrats of using them as a political football.

The Tories and LibDems then united - though for opposite reasons - to vote against the clause introducing the three categories. They were defeated.

Mr Foster was not, however, deflated. He drew the committee's attention to correspondence between Mr Byers and Graham Lane, Labour chairman of the Local Government Association.

Mr Lane had agreed not to ask MPs to table amendments in return for having the association's concerns answered by letter from the minister. Unfortunately the letters containing the LGA's concerns were not sent in time.

Mr Foster said: "Education authorities have a right to feel let down by Labour's leadership of the LGA. Their concerns have not been expressed and cosy letters between the chairman and minister are no substitute for vigorous and open debate around well-drafted amendments."

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