It ought to be good news that the Prime Minister still sets education at the top of his agenda, but whose agenda is it? Neither opting-out revisited, the policy which he resurrected in an interview last week in The Times, nor the examinations inquest announced this week by his Education and Employment Secretary, sounds like the sort of policy initiative with which Gillian Shephard herself wanted to herald the new school year.
Now at the head of a vastly expanded department following the historic merger of Education and Employment in John Major's July reshuffle, Mrs Shephard ought to be able to concentrate her energies on developing forward-looking policies, rather than being forced back into the old debates.
The flight to grant-maintained status heralded by the l988 Education Act has dwindled to the odd flutter for a number of reasons: the Treasury wasn't prepared to go on paying over the odds as an enticement; the desire to break away from overbearing left-wing local council bosses wasn't such a clinching factor as Ministers had assumed; and, anyway, the local management of schools which came in under the same Act gave most head teachers a liberating taste of self-management without having to drop out of local networks. Nor have the parents, who take the deciding vote, been sufficiently persuaded that opting out was the way to improve schooling for their children. The debate now has moved on to ways of combining maximum self-government for all schools with local monitoring (see Paul O'Shea opposite).
And yet, after four successive Education Secretaries have notably failed to persuade most schools to become grant-maintained, Mr Major is still plugging away. "I believe in trusting headmasters, teachers and governing bodies to run their schools and in trusting parents to make the right choice for their children," he told his interviewer. Compulsion to opt out - rather a contradiction in terms - also seemed to be on the agenda. Closing down failing schools and allowing the popular to expand was another "radical" idea.
If Mr Major listened to his Education Secretary on the progress of recent reforms, rather than to assorted Right-wing think-tankers and advisers who believe that self-government equals standards, he might have taken a different tack.
The evidence is there now that some GM schools - like some local authority schools - do very well, some are average, and a few may be failing. If an LEA school is in a downward spiral, the authority may be able to give it the support or prod that it needs, and if all that and an Office for Standards in Education report fails, Mrs Shephard may send in an education association (which is not possible if it is GM).
She has also demonstrated, with the creation last June of her school improvement programme and advisory group, that she accepts that it is necessary to call in local government and the universities to set schools on the right road to quality, where they demonstrably lack the internal resources to improve themselves. Helping schools to be more effective is a hard slog which takes time and cooperation. Eliminating the local authority connection may not do the trick. No wonder Mrs Shephard distanced herself from opting-out coercion, endorsing it only as a manifesto issue, rather than current policy.
Meanwhile, however, she also had to make the best of things on the examination front, by announcing earlier than intended an inquiry into A-level standards over time, and widening it to include GCSE and university foundation courses. Of course it is right that there should be constant scrutiny of examinations (and indeed degree courses), but the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority is there for that sort of monitoring and its chairman, Sir Ron Dearing, is already probing A-levels as part of his l6 to l9 review.
Mrs Shephard has indeed dismissed the idea of an inquiry into the GNVQ on the grounds that it could be safely left to internal monitoring at the DFEE and by the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, and yet the discrepancies between GNVQ entries and awards raise far more questions than the slight movements up or down in A-level or GCSE. Are they treated differently because neither the media nor right-wing goads care about vocational qualifications?
Mrs Shephard's visionary new brief presents her with great opportunities to make her reputation - and help vocational achievement to make its mark on the educational consciousness along the way - so she too must be impatient to get on with her own agenda. We must hope that she can persuade the Prime Minister what the real priorities are.