Behaviour forms to get legal force

Pupils not signing contracts may be barred, writes Geraldine Hackett. The Government is planning to give schools the power to turn away children whose parents refuse to sign good behaviour contracts.

Ministers intend to prove that they are tough on discipline by including in this autumn's Education Bill a measure allowing schools to require parents to agree to home-school contracts as part of admission procedures.

In cases where pupils persistently flout the agreements, usually covering attendance, homework and behaviour, governors could start exclusion procedures.

However, there are concerns that parents with objections to contracts could have difficulties finding a school and could face action for failing to educate their children.

It is being assumed most parents will sign agreements, but senior policy-makers accept there could be an "awkward squad". The potential for conflict has not been resolved.

As the Bill is being drafted, ministers have no plans to restrict or detail the kind of home-school agreements schools can impose on parents, but Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, may intervene where contracts are considered too prescriptive.

In an effort to deal with recent well-publicised cases of appeal committees reinstating excluded children, the Bill will also place a new duty on such committees to have regard in reaching their decisions to the impact on all the pupils in the school.

The legislation will also increase the maximum period a pupil can be excluded to 45 days and will give schools the power to detain children outside school hours without parents' permission.

At the heart of the Bill is the Government's proposal to introduce greater selection in schools. It will allow grant-maintained schools to select up to 50 per cent of their intake without having to ask the Education and Employment Secretary. Specialist schools will be able to select 30 per cent and local authority schools 20 per cent. Local authority schools will be required to get their council's approval. GM schools are are also to be allowed to expand their sixth-forms and open nurseries. Ministers are hoping the additional capital funding required will come from the Private Finance Initiative.

Labour may accept the discipline measures in the legislation, but will oppose the moves on selection and the clause in the Bill that extends the Assisted Places Scheme to nine and 10-year-olds. Labour is pledged to abolish the scheme and divert the money to reducing the size of infant classes.

The more uncontroversial clauses deal with the merger of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications; a requirement on schools to set targets for improving performance in maths, English and science, and a more closely-defined statutory starting age for school.

The National Association of Head Teachers favours legally enforceable home-school contracts, but the union accepts they could lead to an increase in the number of excluded pupils. Hundreds of schools already have voluntary home-school contracts.

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