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The vision game

While Education Ministers move into consolidation mode for the next year or two, there can be no hint of winding down for their Labour opposite numbers. With the appointment of David Blunkett to the education post, the new Labour leader Tony Blair has confirmed suspicions circulating ever since the July launch of Ann Taylor's "white paper", that he was not of one mind with the education spokesperson he had inherited.

The most obvious differences at the time were over the future fate of grant-maintained schools, the broadening (or junking) of A-levels, and testing, but there was also a crucial divergence on emphasis. Where Mrs Taylor had devoted herself for several years to the widest possible consultation with education providers, and then struggled to distill the results into a coherent and politically acceptable policy, Mr Blair's instinct was to turn the process on its head in the search for new and voter-friendly policies by starting from the consumer viewpoint. One point on which he was explicit was that there could be no turning the clock back to l979.

The question for Tony Blair was how far he could place "modernising" allies in control of the levers of power, given the Parliamentary Labour Party's tendency to inertia on shadow Cabinet elections, and the Blackpool conference's affirmation for the "white paper" and a motion on GM schools (automatically policy under party rules). This promised ambiguously to restore "the strategic and support role of local authorities", as well as to end opting-out and GM status, but arguably left open whether that signified a return to the pre-l987 status quo.

By picking David Blunkett for the education brief, rather than one of the closer allies whose names had been widely canvassed, Blair has probably won over some doubters within the party. Mr Blunkett is a man with solid local government roots and reputation who knows exactly how the system works, and what its strengths - and weaknesses - are. He knows what is possible. What is less clear is where he will find the fresh vision to both satisfy his declared "passion" for education and inspire the floating voter.

In what he has had to say so far, David Blunkett has made it clear that he will take the same line as Tony Blair in emphasising the importance of parental expectations, the need for the highest standards, and an end to any tolerance for mediocrity in the state system, especially in the inner cities. With his own experience in Sheffield and that of his number two, Peter Kilfoyle in Liverpool, he should be well placed to demonstrate that he means what he says. Other commitments suggest that he will not wish to turn his back on everything in the "white paper", as indeed does his support for the reintegration of GM schools into their LEAs.

But is that in line with Tony Blair's reluctance to turn the clock back, or with the reality that will face any future Labour Government? That battle remains to be fought out. Having appointed someone of the local government stature of David Blunkett, it will be that much harder for his leader to brush aside his beliefs, but on the other hand an objective view supports the line that complete reversal of the Government's opting-out policy is not a realistic option.

Tony Blair has already promised to consult with GM heads about how the nature of their independence differs from that of locally managed schools, and there is an important debate to pursue about accountability and the need to restore strategic planning and admissions policies to some form of local control. But local government leaders also need to be clear-headed about the imperative to refrain from recreating the style and behaviour that many schools wanted to opt out of - at least as critical as the financial factor, and noticeably modified to persuade other schools to stay loyal. Whatever the outcome, unpicking policies is hardly a clarion call at election time and Labour still desperately needs new ideas to justify education's position at the top of its agenda.

This week's report from the Commission on Social Justice provides a coherent and readable vision for the future, with a crucial role for education to overcome inequalities of birth and status. It strengthens the growing consensus demanding more ambitious targets for the education and care of the under-fives, and a more coherent framework for the education and training of the l4-l9 age group, and launches the enticing idea of a Learning Bank to finance lifelong learning, which steals clothes from both the learning credits and vouchers lobbies. It also seeks to make connections between education, social services, benefits and employment which could revolutionise the way that services meet the real needs of consumers, if any future Government would grasp that nettle.

But the structure and content of schooling was not within the Commission's remit. If Labour's education "white paper" is to be rethought or simply redeveloped, there is more hard thinking to be done.

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