Shephard scents a narrow victory

14th June 1996 at 01:00
Victory in the battle over the content of the forthcoming Schools White Paper appears marginally to have gone to Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary.

The proposals now likely to be published within two weeks will provide for greater selection in schools, reduce the influence of local education authorities and encourage the creation of new grammar schools.

The strategy underlining the White Paper, however, stops far short of the ambitions of the Conservative right for a wholesale return to grammar schools.

Reports that Conservative Central Office deemed Mrs Shephard "too soft" on schools appeared last week, in the crucial days before the draft of the White Paper was due to be discussed in Cabinet committee.

From the start, Mrs Shephard has been wrong-footed - forced to accept a White Paper foisted on her by Conservative strategists keen to have a document that demonstrates clear blue water between the Tories and Labour.

In the event, she has accepted that schools will be freer to introduce selection, and she will take powers to override local authorities unwilling to allow comprehensives to become grammars.

Mrs Shephard is keen to emphasise that the Government's aim is to create a spectrum of schools that includes grammars and specialist institutions, rather than the Right's enthusiasm for a return to selection.

The whispering campaign against Mrs Shephard stems from disagreements about presentation as much as it does about policy. Critics want her to be more combative. Central Office believes Mrs Shephard is tactically wrong to accuse Labour - with its latest espousal of streaming in secondary schools - of stealing the Tories' clothes or accepting Tory policies. They want her to produce an alternative vision on education.

The White Paper proposals show she has given ground to the Right. Grant-maintained schools are to be allowed to select up to half their intake without having to seek permission from the DFEE. That freedom is not to be extended to local authority schools, which will be restricted to rules that mean they can select 20-25 per cent of their pupils. (The final figure was apparently still being debated up to Wednesday - the day the White Paper was due to go to Cabinet committee.) The prospect held out by the Prime Minister earlier this year that schools would be free to select all their pupils is unlikely. There is expected to be a promise that parents can petition for schools to become grammar schools and there are likely to be new powers to force local authorities to take account of any parental preference for a grammar when new schools are opened. There are an estimated 25 expanding towns with a population of 80-100,000, which could demonstrate the need for a new secondary.

The White Paper will make it easier for schools to select by aptitude or ability and make it easier for comprehensives to become grammars. There is also to be further encouragement of specialist schools. Changes in legislation will be part of an autumn education Bill.

The details now have the backing of the Prime Minister and the public complaints from the Right may be an attempt to achieve Cabinet support for last-minute changes.

Government managers hope the White Paper will put an end to the acrimony between Mrs Shephard and Central Office. The party chairman, Dr Brian Mawhinney, claims not to be interested in policy details, but simply wants an incisive presentation of the party's radical ideas.

While the row over the extent to which a return to grammar schools can be engineered has taken centre-stage, the White Paper will include other controversial measures.

A further squeeze on the ability of local authorities to retain finance for central services is expected. Local authorities are to be forced to delegate 90 per cent of school funding and there are to be new restrictions on the way budgets can be allocated.

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