Schools policy leaves questions unanswered: Ngaio Crequer looks at plans for A-levels, funding and testing

THE MAIN points of Labour's policy are:

GRANT-MAINTAINED SCHOOLS

Labour says these schools, rather than opting out of the local education authority, have actually opted in to a centralised system, under the direct personal control of the Secretary of State.

Labour will abolish the new Funding Agency for Schools. It will place all schools, including city technology colleges, and those that have opted out, 'within the local democratic framework'. What this means is unclear, and is probably more unclear after Tony Blair's press conference than before it. He insisted yesterday that there were two different issues relating to opted-out schools: power and independence, and funding. 'You can have maximum devolution of power and control by parents and governors, but still be funded by the local education authority.'

He said the public interest had to be served by local accountability, and so local education authorities would fund the schools. But he was keen to keep and extend the independence of such schools.

This could hurt both ways. Grant-maintained schools opted out because they wanted complete control over the way they were run. Education authorities will not like the idea of funding schools, but having no control over them.

There will be new Community Education Forums, which will use the expertise of business people, teachers, governors, church leaders and others to discuss, for example, admissions policies.

GRAMMAR SCHOOLS

The statement is bold. 'Labour upholds the comprehensive principle that each and every child is entitled to the best education we can provide. We will ensure this principle is extended in practice.'

So does this mean the end of grammar schools? Mr Blair said: 'Selection (at 11) is something we want to discourage. But in the end, it is clear that there will be certain schools that exist of that nature.'

A-LEVELS

Labour wants a balance between academic and vocational courses post-16. It proposes a General Certificate of Further Education, integrated with the GCSE. This will be part of a continuous structure for the 14-19 age group.

There would be a 'unified qualification to be gained by credit accumulation'. The long-term target is for 80 per cent of young people to matriculate at GCFE.

But whither A-levels? The policy statement says that employers, universities, and schools agree that 'A-levels are a real barrier to the development of further and higher education. Labour will respond to the universal call to replace the present over-specialised narrow A-level.'

Which sounds a bit like they will get rid of A-levels. But Mr Blair insisted: 'This is not about scrapping A-levels, but broadening them.'

He wanted to retain A-levels as the 'gold standard' but wanted pupils to study more and wider subjects at that level.

Ann Taylor, the Labour spokesperson on education, said that A-levels would remain in the first instance but eventually the aim was for a mix of academic and vocational education, tailored to student needs.

NURSERY EDUCATION

'The first priority of a Labour Secretary of State for Education will be a dramatic extension of nursery education. It says it will ensure that all 3- and 4-year-olds whose parents want it have access to quality nursery education.

Labour will develop a curriculum suited to 3- and 4- year-olds which will concentrate on language development as a priority.

The pledge fell short of guaranteeing nursery education for all, but Labour clearly believes this is a priority, not just because it is educationally sound, but also because other problems of bad behaviour, child crime, teenage pregnancies should ultimately figure less.

TESTING

Labour is against 'overburdensome and educationally unsound tests' and favours assessment procedures that have the confidence of parents and teachers.

It does, however, believe that 'a bank of nationally validated tests' can underpin teacher assessment. Mr Blair said he was not against testing in principle, but this should be supported by continuous assessment, to ensure the results were valid.

DISCIPLINE

Parents must play their part and ensure pupils do their homework. There should be home/school contracts, which should also help schools and parents in combating truancy. There will be discussions about what sanctions can be used if parents fail to meet their responsibilities.

A Freedom of Information Act will guarantee parents access to information on homework, discipline, school organisation, pastoral care and extra curricular activities.

TEACHERS

There will be a General Teaching Council to promote the professionalism of teachers and guarantee high standards of teaching.

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