Suddenly the framework, funding and governance of education has become an extremely hot issue. The Labour Party has just released its policy on schools. The Secretary of State has decided, remarkably, to give local education authorities a new role via Grants for Education Support and Training of responsibility for school improvement.
The publication of our commissioned research from Warwick University on the transition of schools from LEA to grant-maintained status has contributed significantly to the debate about the future of the education service. Most GM schools now seek that status because of perceived financial advantage instead of the initial trigger - that of seeking independence from the LEA. Yet the research found that teachers in GM schools now found themselves to be professionally isolated.
Vital questions are now also emerging on the funding of education. They concern not only the total amount which should be spent on education in England and Wales but the mechanism for funding it. At our recent funding seminar, many participants highlighted the need for a re-examination of the funding mechanism. The National Union of Teachers made it clear that a review should take place which must be guided by the principles of equity, accountability and transparency.
Incomprehensibility is not only a characteristic of the Standing Spending Assessment and the Revenue Support Grant; it also characterises the decision-making process leading up to the Government's annual local government financial settlement. Teacher, parent and governor organisations may be consulted by government on a range of educational issues but funding education is patently not one of them.
It is clear that we have a dysfunctional system. From behind the smoke of speculation (much of it inaccurate) about the NUT's position on GM status, the union was making some obvious but vital points last week. No U-turn was being conducted. Like teachers in GM schools themselves we remain opposed to the present divisive system of GM status. Opposition, however, is not enough. A unified system has to be restored. But how?
A new government has to get it right and that means getting the processes of change right. It must understand that consultation is vital to those processes and needs, therefore, to take two consecutive steps. The first must be to institute a review of the LEA's role. Via consultation with all the members of the educational community at LEA and school level, the review would identify those responsibilities which are legitimately those of an "over-arching" authority and those which legitimately belong to schools.
The 1988 Education Act provides no basis for a unified system capable of delivering strategic planning, high-quality provision and equal educational opportunities for all pupils. The Act has undermined local democratic accountability and admissions procedures.
Consequent on the review of the role of LEAs and schools, a review of the funding mechanism must be conducted. The funding inequity between GM and LEA-maintained schools must be tackled.
The problem, however, goes deeper than the effects of favourable special-purpose grants, funding "floors" and central annual maintenance grants. Government criteria for deciding the percentage allocation for education spending, the SSA mechanism itself, the structural inequities in funding between the primary and secondary phases, the lack of an audit by government of the effects of statutory requirements on schools, illustrates a vital point. A much more fundamental review of education funding based on meeting educational need must take place.
During the furore of last week, Local Schools Information released its paper Useful Lessons. It shared our understanding that the easiest trap to fall into would be to put together a quick solution that like the 1988 Act (and unlike the 1944 Act) would not last.
Above all, the NUT is proud of having raised the level of debate about how to achieve a high-quality education service. And we know where we are going.
Doug McAvoy is general secretary of the National Union of Teachers