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Bill to boost grammars tops autumn agenda

The Government is expected to give priority in the House of Commons this autumn to the Education Bill, which contains measures to increase selection in schools and provide new powers for the Education and Employment Secretary to act against local authorities opposed to grammar schools.

Details of the Bill will appear shortly after next week's Queen's Speech and are expected to run to 30-40 clauses, with parliamentary scrutiny due in early December.

Much of the content is taken from the White Paper, Self-Government for Schools, but the Bill also contains measures to tighten discipline; new requirements for schools to set exam targets and the introduction of testing for five-year-olds.

The Commons battle will be over proposals to allow grant-maintained schools to select up to half their intake without seeking government approval and over new powers that will allow the Education and Employment Secretary to overrule local authorities opposed to greater selection in specialist schools.

The Bill proposes to allow specialist schools to select up to 30 per cent of children without seeking permission. Schools will be allowed to appeal to Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, in cases where local authorities block the proposals. Schools will also be required to consider annually the case for introducing greater selection.

However, Mrs Shephard is to get reserve powers to intervene in areas where the creation of selective or partially selective schools might leave children without places. The clause suggests civil service unease at the prospect of schools being allowed to increase selection without regard to the impact on neighbouring schools.

The Funding Agency for Schools is to be given powers to propose new grant-maintained schools in any area. Until now, its authority has been restricted to places that already have grant-maintained schools.

The White Paper suggested the agency might be required to consider whether a new secondary school should be a grammar, but that measure could be implemented without any change in the law.

The Bill also opens up the Assisted Places Scheme to prep schools in order to increase the number of places for five to nine-year-olds.

In addition, the Bill contains a raft of measures unlikely to be contested by the Opposition. Mrs Shephard has promised to introduce new powers for schools to require parents to sign home-school contracts as part of admission procedures; new powers to keep pupils in detention and a new requirement for appeal committees considering exclusion to take account of the interests of all the children in the school.

The Bill will introduce baseline assessment for five-year-olds, prepare the way for the merger between the National Council for Vocational Qualifications and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, and define more closely the statutory school starting age. There will also be measures to regulate the operation of agencies employing supply teachers.

* The Government has refused parliamentary time to a Bill regulating agencies that employ supply teachers, drafted by Margaret Hodge, Labour MP for Barking. In a survey of London secondary schools, Ms Hodge found that one in three schools using such agencies has experienced problems.

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