Election ;97: The challenges facing Britain's new Labour government

Schools top hit list with move to cut class sizes
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Education will be the subject of one of the first bills of the new Parliament to fulfil Tony Blair's promise that his priorities are education, education and education.

The bill will include the abolition of the assisted places scheme to pay for smaller classes for five-to-seven-year-olds, the ending of grant maintained status for schools which have opted out of local authority control and, possibly, stronger powers for the Secretary of State for Education to close failing schools.

Labour's pledge on class sizes will be the most tricky to implement. Since money from the assisted places scheme will not be released until next year because pupils who have been offered places for this autumn will continue to be funded, no start can be made on reducing class sizes until next April at the earliest.

There will be no law which says class sizes for young children cannot be more than 30. Instead, local authorities will be invited to produce plans for lowering class sizes and will bid for special grants to implement them.

There are two difficulties with this. The first is that it will only enable local authorities to give schools the money to reduce class sizes: it will not compel them to do so.

The second is that the whole basis of the way in which schools are funded will have to be changed if the maximum savings are to be realised from the assisted places scheme.

At present, schools receive a specific amount for each pupil, depending on their age. If they continue to do this, the only savings will be the comparatively small difference between the cost of an assisted place at an independent school and the cost of a state school place.

However, if the rules were changed to allow, for instance, authorities to fund schools according to the number of classes rather than the precise number of pupils, the savings would be much greater.

The whole issue of who polices class sizes will also have to be tackled.

Some changes to grant maintained schools will not require legislation. Labour's promise to fund them in the same way as other schools so that they lose their financial advantages will probably be carried out at once by scrapping the separate funding formula for opted out schools.

The money they receive for services they pay for which would normally be provided by the local authority will also be reduced.

Their change of status - Labour is offering them the opportunity to become "foundation" schools - would need to be part of a bill. They will have to have local authority governors and agree their admissions policies with the local authority.

Independent appeal panels who would sort out disputes between the two sides would be included in the bill. The big questions are over their assets which they took with them when they opted out and their control of admissions.

The official Labour line is that there will be few disputes over admissions policies but local authorities expect a series of battles.

For them and for parents, the key issue will be whether former grant maintained schools will still be able to continue to operate admissions policies which enable them to select the children they want while neighbouring schools continue to take the pupils who live closest to them.

Labour will not need to legislate to scrap the nursery voucher scheme which it has promised to end by September. The legislation which introduced nursery vouchers for all four-year-olds simply enabled the secretary of state to provide vouchers.

The new government will, however, need to unscramble the funds which are being distributed as vouchers to parents and redistribute them to local authorities. Civil servants believe these could be unpicked according to the promised timetable.

Comments