If locally managed schools will not come to the mountain of self-government, then the powers of grant-maintained schools will be brought to them.
That is what Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, seemed to signal in a wide-ranging speech at the London Institute of Education last week. Quite what that entails remains ambiguous, while advisers and officials cobble together the details or seek to obscure from John Major the truth that it does not amount to much. The White Paper promised in June may make things clearer, but so far it is difficult to discern any coherent line of policy in the U-turns and double-U-turns on selection and delegation of school funding.
The speech seemed to be designed to do two things. First, it was meant to underline unity. With education policy an electoral issue driven from Downing Street, the Education Secretary and her junior ministers apparently find it necessary to issue unconvincing assurances that she is right behind the Prime Minister's wayward pronouncements. She even felt obliged to express common purpose with Chris Woodhead.
The speech also attempted to portray the Government's wavering course as part of a continuing drive to higher standards through selection and self-government. In the event, it turned out to consist of little more than window dressing, timed to harmonise with the Prime Minister's electioneering address to the party faithful in Harrogate at the weekend but with any real action postponed safely beyond the next election.
With the ink hardly dry on consultations on a draft circular suggesting schools might select up to 15 per cent of their pupils, no questions asked, Mrs Shephard is now reading from the Prime Minister's script about allowing schools to decide for themselves "what sort of admissions policy will best match the needs of their local community". This laissez faire approach appears to apply to all schools, not just GM, though this may be one of the speech's deliberate ambiguities. Where it would leave a local authority's duty to provide school places for all pupils is just one of many unanswered questions.
Selection of any kind can only operate in schools that are oversubscribed. So how will it improve parental choice to give such schools greater powers to choose their pupils? Whatever happened to plans to allow popular schools to expand? And in what way will creaming off the most able pupils help other schools to raise the standards of the middle and lower achievers?
Further delegation of powers to schools is another of those ideas successive ministers have marched to the top of the hill with trumpets blaring only to march them quietly down again. The same questions were addressed in the Government's last review of local management. Why do some authorities delegate more than others? Would further delegation of funding and services improve or impede value for money?
These are issues that should be kept under review; change may be needed as circumstances alter and schools develop greater management expertise. Heads who are satisfied with the present balance of responsibilities and services may need to be nudged towards greater autonomy from time to time.
But this is unlikely to yield a significant change in the self-governing status of schools. By pretending it will, the Government is simply agreeing with those who regard the distinction between locally managed and grant-maintained schools as now largely irrelevent.