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LEADING ARTICLE : Labour - must try harder

Yesterday respectable old Labour, in the appropriately jowly shape of the former deputy leader, Roy Hattersley, had its say about education. There should be one, undivided service, he told the conference, a single "unified system of comprehensive education". To that end he condemned the education spokesman, David Blunkett's plans to allow grant-maintained schools to hold a slightly different status from ordinary schools. He was not mollified by Mr Blunkett's assertion that such questions of structure were beside the point. Standards and structure were bound together and could not be separated, he argued.

On this last point Mr Hattersley is surely right. Of course Mr Blunkett and Mr Blair deserve credit for for their stress on improving the quality of teachers, for accepting the need to measure performance and for sending out clear signals about the intention to raise standards. But there is nevertheless something unsatisfactory about the leadership's current attempt to sweep under the carpet the question of how and by whom access to education is to be controlled.

In the first place, according to Mr Blair, new Labour's crusade for education (unlike Mr Hattersley's) embraces the idea of a diversity of schools. The Labour leader painted a picture in which there would be schools which emphasised music, or maths, or design. "Schools with a specialism that brings out the best in their pupils", as he put it. This vision of the education system is both more attractive and more relevant than the bureaucratic egalitarianism of the Hattersley camp.

But on what basis will children be allocated to such schools? Labour has set its face against selection either by examination or by parental interview. At the moment geographical proximity ("catchment") is the main factor in the state system. Such a system cannot coexist with the development of more specialised schools. So, just as denominational schools demand some level of religious commitment on the part of parent or child, specialist schools would need to be assured of some level of aptitude. Some form of negotiation between parent and school is inevitable; the challenge is to develop a set of criteria which is transparent and which allows as much weight as possible to the view of the parents. We have as yet no idea about how Labour thinks this might be done.

Mr Blunkett's stance is that a new education system for a new Britain will come about through a drive to raise standards in schools through the efforts of boards of governors, local education authorities, inspectors and the government. These bodies will employ headteachers, monitor performance and take any necessary action. Which is fine as far as it goes. What it completely fails to do, however, is to harness the perceptions, desires and choices of the parents themselves as an organic driver of standards. Yet, as we have discovered in practically every other area of service provision, allowance for consumer choice provides an important stimulus to improving performance and signalling when things are going wrong.

To be fair to new Labour, there are formidable practical difficulties involved in giving practical shape to the ideal of parental choice. We have not yet discovered how to "grow" popular schools, while managing the decline of those that are failing. But it is depressing that Mr Blunkett and his colleagues, despite seeing off the Hattersleyites, have set their faces so sternly against any discussion of vouchers, even experimentally in extending access to nursery education. As a result of such restricted vision they are in danger of leading a crusade not to the Promised Land, but only as far as the Slightly Better Land.