Leading Article: Reforming the public schools

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The Independent Online
Labour's policies on schools have, until recently, been like a blinkered nag. The party looked only in the direction laid down by the National Union of Teachers. Before Tony Blair began to shed the dogma, this meant an interminable series of rearg uard actions, trying to halt change.

In consequence, there has been almost no forward thinking. What would a Labour Education Secretary actually do in the first weeks in office? Education was a Labour strength, but not any longer.

As Labour's chances of forming the next government increase, however, the private sector in education is getting nervous. We report today on a so-called voucher scheme which is advanced as a more attractive version of the present assisted places scheme.

Politicians of all stripes will be able to detect the self-interest in the proposal - on one level it is primarily motivated by a need to increase the revenue base of schools which are finding life increasingly competitive. It would be a mistake, howeve r , to dismiss the idea. Vouchers offer a way of giving educational spending power, and therefore increased choice, tothose whose children are most educationally deprived. The Government has hinted that it might favour such an approach in the nursery secto r, but has so far failed to pluck up the courage.

If a Blair government is to develop a serious meritocratic agenda, tackling privilege in education should be near the top. Its approach will also need to be founded upon a recognition, in education as in health, that the public and private sectors need to coexist and that a modern socialism will address the problem of how to avoid either becoming a ghetto of over- or under-privilege.

Mr Blunkett's first reaction to the pitch from the public schools has, thankfully, been sensible. He has indicated a willingness to examine the idea. All those parents who, like the Blairs, have wrestled with the personal dilemma about their children's education will recognise that Labour's old certainties in education will no longer do. The question for Labour is whether it can proceed from its leader's instincts to a platform of radical reform.