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What a difference some days make

Geraldine Hackett talks to David Blunkett in his first interview since taking over as Labour education spokesman. David Blunkett doesn't intend to let the grass grow under his feet. Only days have passed since his appointment as leader of Labour's education team, and he has already agreed with Tony Blair a statement on the future of grant-maintained schools under a Labour government.

The immediate strategy appears to be to buy time with a promise to talk to heads and governors of GM schools about the kind of management framework most conducive to producing high standards.

While such schools account for only a small fraction of the total, Mr Blunkett acknowledges there is a political problem because of their high profile. Labour, he insists, will abolish GM status and will get rid of the Funding Agency for Schools. However, that leaves a great deal of work to be done on the means of re-integrating GM schools.

"I don't under-estimate the challenge, but I want to see if we can find a consensus with those heads and governors who are not ideologically committed, " he says.

"I want to know the underlying reasons (for schools going grant-maintained) and I want to hear from heads and governors. I am more interested in the issue of how we deliver high standards and high quality in education. The structure is only a means to the end."

The other signs of firm opposition are his plans to set up two task forces. One will mirror the Government's task force to look at ways of fulfilling John Major's promise to increase provision for four-year-olds, except that it will have a wider brief to draw together what needs to be done for the under-fives.

Mr Blunkett has already asked Margaret Hodge, the former leader of Islington council, to convene the group, and it will draw on members of the health team and people from outside Parliament.

The second group will be on youth policy, an issue close to Mr Blunkett's heart. He feels strongly that more has to be provided for the 750,000 young people aged between 16 and 24 who are without a job or a place on a training scheme. He is particularly pleased that the Commission on Social Justice took up his ideas on citizens' service.

Such activity is not intended to distract from the imperative to shift the emphasis of Labour's policy closer to the concerns of parents. Mr Blunkett knows he will be pressed on whether Labour intends to scrap school league tables based on exam results and truancy rates. It is unlikely a Labour government would remove existing sources of information; the intention is to add to its usefulness with measures of school effectiveness.

The new focus will include examining the role of the Office for Standards in Education. The regular inspection of schools would continue under a Labour government, but Mr Blunkett wants to look at ways of doing more than identifying the weaknesses of schools.

It would be almost unseemly for the newly-arrived Mr Blunkett to declare that the existing policy, set out in his party's "white paper", is due to undergo a substantial re-write. He prefers to see his role as developing policy in the run-up to a general election that is roughly two years away.

He is determined not to be wrong-footed - which means the paper on further and higher education will not see the light of day until Mr Blunkett is confident it won't meet the fate of the first draft (scrapped days before it was due to be launched).

Although he eschews comparison with his predecessor, Ann Taylor, who was considered to be on the side of the producers, rather than the consumers, he is aware that local authorities are looking to Labour to restore their fortunes after years of struggling to survive in a hostile climate.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Blunkett is opposed to the Conservative reforms that have encouraged a market approach to education. What he wants to see is local authorities coming up with fresh ideas about the way they deal with schools - even to the extent of ways of encouraging GM schools to want to belong to the wider education community. His own experience at a residential school for the blind was that it suffered from its isolation from the mainstream. "I want to understand why these schools want to be independent. It can't be the case that heads do not need any outside contact," he says.

A Labour government might not be above using the kind of tactics that attracted some schools to becoming grant-maintained - the belief that capital grant would be available. Schools that took advantage of the chance to work collaboratively with the Government might gain entitlement.

Elections are not won or lost on education policy. Even so, Mr Blunkett is confident it matters in terms of how the electorate views the parties. He wants parents to see Labour as the party concerned about standards in schools. His own sons need no convincing. They are apparently appalled at the appointment, knowing full well that their father is keen on homework, discipline and decent spelling.

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