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FEATURES-FOCUS ON EDUCATION

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White paper, bleak future? ...
White paper, bleak future?

The education white paper finally arrived last week. Conor Ryan looks at what the government has in store for schools and education departments

When Labour won the June election, education departments knew they had a continuing, if diminished, role. And now the white paper expects them to be imaginative enough to embrace more change.

Essentially, there are three main objectives behind Labour's reforms: meet individual aptitudes, improve standards and widen diversity.

The first goal means more vocational education. It implies more support for gifted and talented pupils through Excellence in Cities. And it may mean tests being taken earlier by many pupils.

Higher standards rely on councils. Labour has trumpeted its success in turning around 750 failing schools with LEA support. That work will extend with new targets for schools where fewer than 25% gain five good GCSE passes.

The new key stage three strategy to improve standards for 11-14 year olds (backed by league tables) will demand as much training from council-based consultants as the primary literacy and numeracy hours needed.

However, ministers believe council intervention should be 'in inverse proportion to success' - councils should leave successful schools alone. Introduced to reassure grant-maintained schools, the edict now offers the most successful heads 'earned autonomy' in pay and the curriculum.

This has been matched with a strong deregulatory push in the white paper offering more freedom to run 'dawn-to-dusk' schools, with crèches, adult education and other facilities.

Specialist schools are central to greater diversity - Labour's third objective. Almost half English secondary schools are expected to specialise by 2005. While focusing on subjects like technology or languages (with maths and computing now added), they also teach the national curriculum.

Critics argue they create a 'two-tier system' because they can choose a tenth of their pupils. But the government says few select and they offer parents greater choice. Ministers insist there is no limit to the potential number of specialists schools, though failing schools must improve first. Far from being a 'return to the 11-plus', they see them 'modernising' comprehensive education.More faith schools are promised, including new Anglican secondaries, despite doubts after the Oldham and Bradford riots.

Ministers believe Muslim or Sikh schools must get state funding in the same way as Anglican and Catholic schools. School organisation committees (involving councils, dioceses and heads) will have to make the decisions.

Private or not-for-profit firms will be invited to take over the management of perhaps a few dozen weak or failing schools. Firms like Nord Anglia want to take over the governors' key strategic management role, but this was resisted by ministers.

However, the white paper allows both councils and ministers to insist an external provider turns around a failing school, though this is more likely to be a successful school than a private firm. In failing schools, new powers will be introduced to allow for the replacement of existing governors in failing schools with a smaller temporary 'interim executive board', which may give an external provider the control they say they need.

Ofsted inspections have already led to private sector involvement in 20 education departments, ranging from Islington's outsourcing of all key services (where Cambridge Education Associates was penalised for failing to reach GCSE targets this year) to consultants in Leicester suggesting in-house improvements. Ministers say they want the same 'pragmatic' approach used in schools.

Successful councils should find new opportunities here. More may establish companies or public/private partnerships to market their expertise directly to schools outside their own areas. Otherwise, more of their best staff could be poached by the new education firms.

Ministers want schools to have more flexibility with governing bodies and there is separate consultation on this. The councils would continue to have nominating rights, though their influence might be marginally reduced in larger schools. The power to have joint governing bodies has been restored.

Some LEAs worry their ability to act is curtailed by the increasing financial delegation to head teachers. Some 86% of the local schools budget is now delegated, compared with 79% four years ago.

When the average reaches 90% cent in 2003, separate school and council spending assessments are likely. Education departments may continue to determine distribution factors such as poverty or sparsity, but will only keep a tenth of all spending themselves.

Reports that councils would be given more control of school admissions proved exaggerated: foundation and voluntary-aided schools retain their jealously guarded control of their own admissions - though all are supposed to adhere to a national code.

However, local admissions forums, bringing heads and councils together to agree a common timetable, are set to be made compulsory, with councils expected to co-ordinate timetables. There will be some technical changes to existing rules to clarify how many preferences a parent can express.

Labour has had an uneasy relationship with education departments. But as the election approached, a new pragmatism emerged in opposition to the Conservative's 'free schools' proposals. The strategic LEA is the result. Now it must both deliver and adapt. The survival of the LEA after the next election will depend on how well it does its job in the meantime.

Conor Ryan

Special adviser to David Blunkett 1997-2001.

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