Richard Garner: Blair's last chance to teach us all a New Labour lesson

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The Independent Online

The Prime Minister has indicated he wants it to pave the way for the state system to comprise a network of "independent state schools" - with the freedom to run their own affairs, mirroring the private school system.

So does it amount to a wholesale privatisation of schools?

The answer has to be no. Private companies (and faith groups) will undoubtedly have a bigger say in the running of state schools. They would have done anyway under the Government's plans to increase the number of privately sponsored academies from 17 to 200 by the end of the decade. (These are largely to replace failing inner-city schools,)

However, headteachers' leaders say they detect no enthusiasm among schools to rush into the arms of the private sector and believe many of its aims will be "largely ignored".

In addition, the plan to allow independent schools to "opt in" to the state system could be described as a nationalisation of the private sector rather than the other way round. In practice, it is likely to be the faith schools - particularly in the Muslim communities which have been refused permission to become state schools in the past because of inadequate buildings - that are most likely to take advantage of this.

The other main worry of opponents of the White Paper is that it will lead to a two-tier system. So will it lead to more selection in the sector?

Not by the front door, no. All state schools will be told they should abide by a code on admissions, which effectively rules out selection.

Sir Cyril Taylor, the Government's chief adviser on specialist schools and academies, would like them to operate a fair banding system, ie, take equal numbers of pupils from each of nine different ability groups - thus ensuring adherence to the comprehensive principle.

This has led to wild speculation that the Government intends to return to the days of the 11-plus - because pupils may have to sit non-verbal reasoning tests to determine which band they are in. In fact, the aim is the very opposite of the old 11-plus.

The Government is also introducing measures to combat selection by the back door - which has turned many of the most popular schools into "no-go" zones for children from poorer families. These include cut-price bus travel for children from council estates to go to better-performing schools in wealthier suburbs, and employing advisers to visit their parents' homes to supply more information about the schooling on offer locally.

These plans, though, could be scuppered by the Education Secretary Ruth Kelly's decision last week to give the London Oratory, a Catholic school, the right to carry on interviewing parents to determine who to admit. It could open the floodgates to other schools to do likewise in the name of testing parents' religious convictions.

In addition, parents' leaders have said they would prefer the schools on their doorstep to be improved - rather than be offered money to go further afield.

As always with New Labour, the Blairspin over the next 48 hours will talk of a revolutionary change in the way our schools are run, and the need to adopt a modernising era. In reality, the White Paper is likely to be more appealing to the views put forward by Ralph Tabberer, the chief executive of the Training and Development Agency for Schools, and be a confirmation of moving further down the road New Labour is already travelling.

That will mean more action to improve school discipline by new laws giving teachers the right to restrain and punish children, and catch-up classes for pupils struggling to master the three R's in secondary schools - less radical but more worthwhile.

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