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FROM PLAYGROUND TO BATTLEGROUND

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When the long-awaited education white paper was finally published after a ...
When the long-awaited education white paper was finally published after a

catalogue of carefully leaked proposals, teaching unions breathed a sigh of relief, while education departments must have shuddered.

Teachers' unions are pleased the threat of wholesale privatisation of schools' subject departments has been abandoned along with some of the more extreme ideas for increasing private sector involvement that were initially put forward.

But it seems as though the Local Government Association has been left high and dry. Its major point of opposition to the white paper was the proposed ring-fencing of council education budgets. But the education secretary Estelle Morris will seek reserve powers to force councils to spend a higher proportion of their education budgets on schools - further restricting their autonomy (LGC, 7 September).

The government's actions are a slap in the face for LGA chair Sir Jeremy Beecham (Lab) whose pleas for a rethink of the plans have fallen on deaf ears. The door has been flung open for a full-scale row between local and central government.

'It would be most unfortunate if the future of education funding is the subject of a serious row between central and local government over the next two years,' warns Sir Jeremy.

The fact the unions are winning greater concessions raises serious questions over which group has more influence over education policy.

'The tone of the white paper is significantly different from that which was on the brink of publication in July, as a direct result of the pressure exerted by the National Union of Teachers, ' says the union's general secretary Doug McAvoy. 'And we will continue to oppose any profit being made from the provision of education.'

Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers is pleased with much of the paper, describing it as 'imaginative and courageous'.

'The public/private debate is a footnote to the real story which is how schools are to be freed up to achieve greater diversity and excellence. There is a crucial difference between the ethos of the public and private sector,' he says.

Teachers' unions galvanised to form a campaign against the government's plans for greater private sector involvement in schools and governing bodies. During the summer months, a raft of surveys and reports commissioned from think-tanks helped to galvanise support and solidify the unions' position. Meanwhile, Graham Lane (Lab), chair of the LGA's education and life long learning committee, and Neil Fletcher, head of education, could barely be heard above the clamour. The two men are not close, and sources in LGA and government circles say they carry little clout in Whitehall.

However a senior local government source defends the LGA's approach.

'The LGA was proactive behind the scenes lobbying ministers and senior officials especially in the area of finance,' he claims. 'Because the unions had not been consulted by government, they had to do it in the media and through the public - and yes they have got some concessions, I won't disagree with that.'

He adds: 'The other advantage they have is that they can unite people across the

whole of the public sector, which is what they have managed to do in education and health.'

But both sides will still have to digest the rest of the radical and far-reaching plans the government has in store.

The end of the 'bog standard' comprehensive is now in sight. By 2005 over half England's schools are expected to specialise in technology, science, languages, sport or the arts. There will also be an expansion of faith schools, but following the events in Bradford and Oldham during the summer, serious concerns over increased racial segregation persist.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters/ Union of Women Teachers, points out that this debate has been overshadowed by the private sector and ring-fencing rows, despite its far-reaching implications.

'Unfortunately privatisation, while far more modest than the spin put upon it in the election is likely to dominate coverage and public debate. Like a couple of drops of poison, they threaten to contaminate the entire package,' he says.

A move that has greatly pleased the unions is the proposals for successful schools to be given the freedom to change the curriculum, vary staff pay and take over schools which under-perform. The government is stressing this approach in order to play down the increased involvement of the private sector in running state schools.

In contrast, councils will have to ask external partners for proposals on how to help a school that is threatened with closure. But if the council rejects the ideas, Ms Morris will have the reserve power to force it to work with an outside organisation. A special adviser to former education secretary David Blunkett estimates the proposals would mean the private sector running perhaps 30 of the worst schools.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers supports these plans.

'The private sector's role will fulfil functions that no sensible observer of the education scene can reasonably object to,' he says. 'Reserve powers to force LEAs when necessary to ring-fence education money is absolutely vital. The government should face down any opposition from councils on this issue.'

An education bill to take the proposals through Parliament is expected around December.

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