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In the run up to the 1997 general election, Labour campaigned under the slogan 'Things can only get better.' ...
In the run up to the 1997 general election, Labour campaigned under the slogan 'Things can only get better.'

If shadow education secretary Theresa May sets about promoting her free schools policy in the run up to the next general election, the Conservatives might like to use the slogan 'Things can only get worse.'

Under Ms May's guidance, the Tories have decided local government's role in education must come to an end. Local education authorities will provide a few services, such as educational welfare and special needs statementing, but budgets will be passed directly to school heads.

Admittedly, this is not far from the proposals of some Labour ministers. When chancellor Gordon Brown announced more money would go directly to heads in his spending review, he won a cheer from the government benches.

Education secretary David Blunkett and prime minister Tony Blair were among the prime movers behind front line first funding.

But the crucial difference is that the government does not yet plan to take the nuclear option of destroying LEAs. Private sector firms are only to be called in if the council is thought to be failing.

Councils have opposed both sets of proposals. A new and costly central bureaucracy will be needed to administer direct funding streams, which are likely to become a nightmare as it becomes clear national funding formulae cannot cater to every local need.

School heads, desperate to win control of their own finances, will lose the extra funding they gain from the many councils who spend over their standard spending assessment on education.

Most importantly, Ms May's policies will remove a crucial piece from the regeneration jigsaw. Schools are vital to renewing neighbourhoods. They are a means to raise children out of the poverty trap and are often unofficial community centres. Unco-ordinated schools cannot function to their full potential.

The Social Exclusion Unit's neighbourhood renewal strategy emphasised that centrally imposed targets and upward accountability failed to relieve the problems of deprived areas.

Yet the Tories seem to think their proposals will make schools 'free'. Free to receive less money as part of a crude national formula. Free not to play their part in regenerating local communities. By removing LEAs, Ms May bizarrely claims, schools will become free from central government intervention. Her policies seem designed to achieve precisely the opposite.

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