opinion: Labour holds the key to improvement,

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The Independent Online
Much of the debate about Labour's policy on grant-maintained (GM) schools - Diversity and Excellence - has focused on whether the compromise it embodies solves the immediate political problems facing Tony Blair and David Blunkett. Judged on this basis it seems to have been remarkably successful: the conference result yesterday, a defeat for those proposing abolition, was confirmation of Mr Blunkett's astute political judgement.

The most important issue is: what long-term impact would Diversity and Excellence have if it were implemented?

Underpinning the document is the belief that school improvement is a task for schools. This is a centrally important insight into school improvement for which the present government must be given some credit.

Labour's proposals build constructively on existing policy. It proposes that a minimum of 90 per cent of all education funding should be devolved to schools.

The proposals also establish a demanding new job description for local authorities. Local education authorities would not be the managing bureaucracies of the past. Instead, their chief function would be to promote school improvement. They would, for example, provide the largely autonomous schools within their areas with data that would enable schools to compare their performance with that of other schools. They would provide services and advice in response to demand from schools. And they would encourage the collaboration among schools and other independent educational agencies, such as universities and further education colleges, which is the key to improvement and innovation - especially in urban areas.

This new role builds on what progressive local education authorities are already beginning to do. Labour proposes that the authorities should be subject to inspection from the Office for Standards in Education and the Audit Commission. Local education authorities would therefore become accountable for their contribution to raising standards. In this sense, they would be on trial. If three years into a Labour government a series of reports suggested local education authorities were not making an effective contribution to school improvement, then clearly their role would be open to question.

One criticism of the document has been that it perpetuates the myth of parental choice. It is clear that the present arrangements are flawed and need refinement. Returning to rigid catchment areas, as some of new Labour's critics on the left suggest, would be disastrous. Far from ending selection, catchment areas in urban areas lead to segregation by class. They offer choice only to those who can afford to move house.

A second criticism levelled at the proposal is that parity of esteem is an illusion and that the foundation schools (which under these proposals GM schools would become) would be held in higher regard than others. It is true that after the Education Act 1944 there was not parity of esteem between the grammar and secondary modern schools, but then there was a blanket system of selection at 11.

Labour's new proposals reject that approach. The community and foundation schools would be funded equitably and would have to adhere to an agreed admissions policy. A return to selection would be ruled out. The only significant difference between the community and the foundation schools would be the extent of their autonomy. Here, however, there would be no perpetuation of existing divisions since schools themselves would - through parental ballot - have the choice of which level of autonomy they preferred.

There is no reason at all why the choice they make on these matters should affect the reputation of the school in the community.

Most heads of GM schools recognise that the current policy is unsustainable, regardless of who wins the next election. The preferential funding which has benefited GM schools cannot, by definition, be extended to all schools. Nor is it possible to sustain a publicly provided education service in which each school sets its own admissions policy without reference to other schools in the locality. In short, the GM policy as it is now constructed can only work when it applies to a different minority.

This does not mean that the policy has been without effect. Its main consequence has been to encourage local education authorities to devolve more funds to all schools than they would otherwise have done and to rethink their role. Now that this has happened, the GM policy has passed its sell- by date, which may explain why Gillian Shephard has sensibly stopped highlighting target numbers of GM schools and begun to make school improvement a priority.

The Prime Minister's recent speech will change nothing. If raising private finance is really good for GM schools, then surely it is good for all.

Thus, from the perspective of GM schools the choice is clear. They can join the school improvement bandwagon which is beginning to roll and make a contribution based on their valuable experience. Or they can watch while it leaves them behind.

The writer is Professor of Education at Keele University. He will shortly take up a new post at the Institute of Education in London.