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Welcome for more fairness

Margaret Maden applauds Labour's new schools policy, but finds some signs of wishful thinking. The Labour party's emerging education policy should be welcomed by schools and local authorities. We are promised a fairer, clearer structure for the funding and governance of all publicly-funded schools and, within this, there is a timely emphasis on the overriding importance of school improvement. It is this conjunction that links the policy document Diversity and Excellence to Tony Blair's speech at London University last Friday.

In this policy package there are at least three strengths which ought to be acknowledged, as well as, three question marks or niggling doubts.

First, on the credit side, there is the delivery of Tony Blair's promise, last year, that the "public interest" needs to be represented in the way our schools are run. Not a heavy bureaucratic hand, but a light steer. We are reminded that the local education authority is "accountable to local electors, is aware of local circumstances and provides a bridge of accountability to the wider community". Throughout Diversity and Excellence there are distant echoes of Rab Butler's belief in "the private world of the school and the public life of the district" a finely-judged balance which was as important in 1944 as it is now.

Second, there are genuine opportunities for local authorities to take up a proper strategic role, one which embraces mediation, information providing, planning and the "creation of learning networks".

On service provision, LEAs are reminded that "their job should be to undertake only those tasks schools cannot do for themselves, or where it makes sense for the resources and expertise to be combined for greater effectiveness". Support and advisory services in special needs and the arts are examples of this. But the need to formulate a strategic programme in an Education Development Plan (EDP) will focus LEAs more precisely on local priorities, whilst the associated requirement to do this in consultation with schools, parents, employers and church authorities will surely benefit everyone. As part of a priority-setting exercise, LEAs are urged to deploy their available expertise and more limited budgets in schools where these are most needed. This implies rather better and more refined needs assessment systems than many LEAs currently possess and its corollary was best expressed by Andre Previn when conducting the London Symphony Orchestra: "if the trumpets are doing well, leave them alone". In other words, LEA interventions and specialist support should be concentrated where they are most needed.

A third matter for congratulation, praise and, indeed, relief is more general but potentially of supreme importance. It is the overall shift signalled both in Diversity and Excellence and is Tony Blair's speech that it is now time to "avoid unnecessary disruption, friction and conflict" and that all schools should "reunite the education service for the future". I believe schools and LEAs are now better placed to work in the kind of mature, structured partnership envisaged by Labour, not least because of some quite painful, but productive, learning about each other over recent years.

Now, though, distractions of a structural kind should be resisted (even if nursery vouchers threaten us on that front) and instead, more important partnerships which are centred on achieving more educational success, should be constructed and in some cases, reconstructed.

More on the debit, cavilling side of things, there are three question marks and concerns about Labour's policy which need to be expressed.

First, it is good to see that in Diversity and Excellence, there are reminders that beyond schools, pre-school provision, youth and adult education and colleges are also important parts of a larger system which require a degree of articulation. Certainly local electors, as members of families, workplaces and community groups would expect no less. Presumably, because this policy statement is the first of several from Labour, this more complex map of linkages will yet emerge. At local or regional level we increasingly need a public forum within which strategic questions concerning access, quality and connexion - especially from the point of view of the user - can be debated and, at best, resolved.

Second, the devil is always in the detail, especially when many key players have recently been locked in adversarial combat and carry with them a rich array of resentments, based on real and imagined perfidy. The extent to which the proposed transitional period stretches, so that the elusive "level playing field" can be achieved for community, aided and foundation schools is clearly important.

There are equally problematic issues here of school funding and admissions. Many grant-maintained schools now employ staff who carry out functions which duplicate those in LEAs and there cannot be an overnight solution to this. Discussions also need to take place in those cases where the staffing and organisation of schools have been changed in accord with a new admissions policy.

But however pragmatic and sensitive such discussions are, a new Labour Secretary of State should not try to prevail upon the goodwill of the large majority of schools and parents for too long or such basic matters. A three-year plan, with targets, is required as an operational commitment.

Third, I wonder what it is that makes new Labour believe that its proposed public inquiry "chaired by an independent person of knowledge and standing" following an already exhaustive (and exhausting) public consultation exercise on a school re-organisation and closure programme would be feasible if the aim is to be consensual, cost-effective andor efficient?

Similarly, there is a touch of romanticism in the idea that if, within a national framework of criteria, a schools admissions policy cannot be agreed between school and LEA, then someone offering "independent arbitration" before (as now) the Secretary of State decides. Extra layers of mediation in these two instances combine wishful thinking with extra cost.

So far, then, so good, with the credits and much good, constructive sense outweighing a few, perhaps premature niggles. The next instalment is promised in the autumn, when further ideas about building in a range of educational quality strategies will be proposed. Let's hope these include a thorough review of the Office for Standards in Education and all its works.

Margaret Maden is a member of the National Commission on Education and a former county education officer for Warwickshire.

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