ANOTHER VIEW : Labour's educational chaos

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The Independent Online
"If I hear that again I'll go mad," claimed Eric Forth, the schools minister. Opposition MPs had infuriated him by referring to John Patten's blueprint for schools not as Choice and Diversity, but as Chaos and Confusion. Yesterday, three years on, Labour launched Chaos and Confusion: The Sequel.

The spin doctors are having an understandably hard time. Those from Tony Blair's office are attempting to reassure grant-maintained (GM) status supporters, especially in the 28 key marginal constituencies that have GM schools. While things cannot stay as they are, former GM schools will still retain a special status and not be returned to the local education authorities (LEAs). Meanwhile, David Blunkett's team is telling Labour activists, many with roots in local government, that they should not worry, either. All state schools will have to abide by the clear strategic planning guidelines of the LEAs.

While most people understand church schools having different arrangements for their governance, neither group of spin doctors has explained why schools which "opted out" for financial gain or to escape reorganisation will be rewarded with special status. The spin doctors are in danger of breathing new life into the failed Tory GM policy. By making "foundation" schools an attractive alternative to LEA-maintained (or "community") schools, previous opponents of GM may consider opting out.

Labour was right to signal the end of an inequitable funding system. There must be a fair allocation of resources to all state schools. It was also right to insist that all schools abide by the same locally determined admission procedures. But this could be achieved without the confusion of the multi-layered option on offer. Under the Liberal Democrats, GM schools and city technology colleges would be returned to the strategic planning framework of new-style, light-touch LEAs. All schools would have maximum freedom to make decisions affecting their day-to-day operation and determine for themselves which LEA services to "purchase". The LEAs would work with schools to lever up standards and provide arbitration in disputes.

Our approach does not pander to old-style, corporatist, excessively interfering LEAs. It liberates individual schools and the communities they serve while ensuring a basis for partnership and co-operation with strategic planning at a local level.

The internal dissension in the Labour Party has not disappeared with the production of a glossy policy document. In a bungled attempt to bury Old Labour, New Labour has produced a fudged compromise. Yet, despite it all, Labour fails to deliver the crucial commitment of increased resources for our schools. So the rhetoric and the detail become not everything, but nothing, to everyone.

The writer is the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, and MP for Bath.

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