Unity reform that threatens to divide

17th October 1997 at 01:00
The period of consultation on the Blair Government's first wave of reforms has officially ended. TES staff report on the responses of the education world to the proposed changes with their emphasis on standards and structures.

The Government appears to have run into trouble in its drive to raise standards with its proposed reform of the structure of the education system.

Opposition to the structural changes has been revealed during the consultation on the White Paper, Excellence in Schools.

Labour has tried to unite a system divided by the Tory creation of grant-maintained schools. However, by telling all schools to select from three new categories, it has inadvertently stirred up discontent.

For months, ministers have been insisting that raising standards is the central mission but, as many responses to the White Paper point out, every governing body will now be obliged to discuss the merits of their school opting for foundation, aided or community status.

The National Governors' Council fears that governors will inevit-ably have to focus on structures, rather than standards. It also warns that the proposals may cause tension if parents favour one category and the governing body another.

The complaint in many of the submissions is that proposals drafted to take account of the 1,000-strong GM sector will affect more than 24,000 schools.

The Labour-controlled Local Government Association insists that the Government has to ensure that none of advantages in funding, admissions and planning enjoyed by the GM sector be carried forward to the foundation category.

The Society of Education Officers, which represents senior officials in local education departments, says that creating a range of structures can only exacerbate the problem of implementing fair admission policies.

The White Paper suggestion that admission policies be left to local forums will only work, says the society, if local authorities are given the lead in setting them up.

Even with local authority co-operation, the society warns that the system being advocated by the Government may not be the most effective way of allocating places according to the preference of parents. The solution, it suggests, might lie in giving local authorities the power to set admission policies or the power to enforce the forum's admission procedures.

In the main, the responses are critical of the proposals for greater parental involvement in schools. Most say that a lone parent on a local authority's education committee is unlikely to make any significant impact. The National Governors' Council sees an argument for governors, rather than parents, to be members of the authority's education committee.

The case is put for revision of the Greenwich judgment, which re-quires schools to admit pupils without regard to council boundaries. Local authorities argue that the ruling hinders their ability to provide sufficient places.

Overall, it would appear that there is more that divides than unites. There is scepticism that local authorities will have the funding or staff to monitor the raft of targets schools will have to set. Heads do not want any shift in the balance of power in favour of local authorities.

Even the Government's much vaunted plans for the advanced skills teacher comes under fire as unworkable, and not only from the unions. According to the Society of Education Officers: "The advanced skills teacher concept is worthy, but proved exceptionally difficult to achieve in the past."

Ministers are unlikely to make major changes to the original proposals, not least because the drafting of this autumn's Bill is well underway. The process by which schools select a particular category may be amended to take account of the problems facing voluntary-controlled schools, who may not be able to pay the 15 per cent of capital costs required to qualify for the aided route that will be taken by other church schools. However, they have been left in no doubt about the consequences of what they are planning.

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